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The Western Schism

This schism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries differs in all points from the Eastern Schism. The latter was a real revolt against the supreme authority of the Church, fomented by the ambition of the patriarchs of Constantinople, favoured by the Greek emperors, supported by the Byzantine clergy and people, and lasting nine centuries. The Western Schism was only a temporary misunderstanding, even though it compelled the Church for forty years to seek its true head; it was fed by politics and passions, and was terminated by the assembling of the councils of Pisa and Constance. This religious division, infinitely less serious than the other, will be examined in its origin, its developments, the means employed to end it, and its ending in 1417 by the election of an undisputed pope. From a legal and apologetic standpoint what did the early doctors think of it? What is the reasoned opinion of modern theologians and canonists? Was the real pope to be found at Avignon or at Rome?

(1) Pope Gregory XI had left Avignon to return to Italy and had re-established the pontifical see in the Eternal City, where he died on 27 March, 1378. At once attention was directed to the choice of his successor. The question was most serious. Cardinals, priests, nobles, and the Romans in general were interested in it, because on the election to be made by the conclave depended the residence of the future pope at Avignon or at Rome. Since the beginning of the century the pontiffs had fixed their abode beyond the Alps; the Romans, whose interests and claims had been so long slighted, wanted a Roman or at least an Italian pope. The name of Bartolommeo Prignano, Archbishop of Bari, was mentioned from the first. This prelate had been Vice-Chancellor of the Roman Church, and was regarded as the enemy of vice, simony, and display. His morals were exemplary and his integrity rigid. He was regarded by all as eligible. The sixteen cardinals present at Rome met in conclave on 7 April, and on the following day chose Prignano. During the election disturbance reigned in the city. The people of Rome and the vicinity, turbulent and easily roused, had, under the sway of circumstances, loudly declared their preferences and antipathies, and endeavoured to influence the decision of the cardinals. Were these facts, regrettable in themselves, sufficient to rob the members of the conclave of the necessary freedom of mind and to prevent the election from being valid? This is the question which has been asked since the end of the fourteenth century. On its solution depends our opinion of the legitimacy of the popes of Rome and Avignon. It seems certain that the cardinals then took every means to obviate all possible doubts. On the evening of the same day thirteen of them proceeded to a new election, and again chose the Archbishop of Bari with the formally expressed intention of selecting a legitimate pope. During the following days all the members of the Sacred College offered their respectful homage to the new pope, who had taken the name of Urban VI, and asked of him countless favours. They then enthroned him, first at the Vatican Palace, and later at St. John Lateran; finally on 18 April they solemnly crowned him at St. Peter’s. On the very next day the Sacred College gave official notification of Urban’s accession to the six French cardinals in Avignon; the latter recognized and congratulated the choice of their colleagues. The Roman cardinals then wrote to the head of the empire and the other Catholic sovereigns. Cardinal Robert of Geneva, the future Clement VII of Avignon, wrote in the same strain to his relative the King of France and to the Count of Flanders. Pedro de Luna of Aragon, the future Benedict XIII, likewise wrote to several bishops of Spain.

Thus far, therefore, there was not a single objection to or dissatisfaction with the selection of Bartolommeo Prignano, not a protest, no hesitation, and no fear manifested for the future. Unfortunately Pope Urban did not realize the hopes to which his election had given rise. He showed himself whimsical, haughty, suspicious, and sometimes choleric in his relations with the cardinals who had elected him. Too obvious roughness and blameable extravagances seemed to show that his unexpected election had altered his character. St. Catherine of Siena, with supernatural courage, did not hesitate to make him some very well-founded remarks in this respect, nor did she hesitate when there was question of blaming the cardinals in their revolt against the pope whom they had previously elected. Some historians state that Urban openly attacked the failings, real or supposed, of members of the Sacred College, and that he energetically refused to restore the pontifical see to Avignon. Hence, they add, the growing opposition. However that may be, none of these unpleasant dissensions which arose subsequently to the election could logically weaken the validity of the choice made on 8 April. The cardinals elected Prignano, not because they were swayed by fear, though naturally they were somewhat fearful of the mischances that might grow out of delay. Urban was pope before his errors; he was still pope after his errors. The passions of King Henry IV or the vices of Louis XV did not prevent these monarchs from being and remaining true descendants of St. Louis and lawful kings of France. Unhappily such was not, in 1378, the reasoning of the Roman cardinals. Their dissatisfaction continued to increase. Under pretext of escaping the unhealthy heat of Rome, they withdrew in May to Anagni, and in July to Fondi, under the protection of Queen Joanna of Naples and two hundred Gascon lances of Bernardon de la Salle. They then began a silent campaign against their choice of April, and prepared men’s minds for the news of a second election. On 20 September thirteen members of the Sacred College precipitated matters by going into conclave at Fondi and choosing as pope Robert of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII. Some months later the new pontiff, driven from the Kingdom of Naples, took up his residence at Avignon; the schism was complete.

Clement VII was related to or allied with the principal royal families of Europe; he was influential, intellectual, and skilful in politics. Christendom was quickly divided into two almost equal parties. Everywhere the faithful faced the anxious problem: where is the true pope? The saints themselves were divided: St Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Sweden, Bl. Peter of Aragon, Bl. Ursulina of Parma, Philippe d’Alencon, and Gerard de Groote were in the camp of Urban; St. Vincent Ferrer, Bl. Peter of Luxemburg, and St. Colette belonged to the party of Clement. The century’s most famous doctors of law were consulted and most of them decided for Rome. Theologians were divided. Germans like Henry of Hesse or Langstein (Epistola concilii pacis) and Conrad of Glenhausen (Ep. brevis; Ep. Concordioe) inclined towards Urban; Pierre d’Ailly, his friend Philippe de Maizieres, his pupils Jean Gerson and Nicholas of Clemanges, and with them the whole School of Paris, defended the interests of Clement. The conflict of rival passions and the novelty of the situation rendered understanding difficult and unanimity impossible. As a general thing scholars adopted the opinion of their country. The powers also took sides. The greater number of the Italian and German states, England, and Flanders supported the pope of Rome. On the other hand France, Spain, Scotland, and all the nations in the orbit of France were for the pope of Avignon. Nevertheless Charles V had first suggested officially to the cardinals of Anagni the assembling of a general council, but he was not heard. Unfortunately the rival popes launched excommunication against each other; they created numerous cardinals to make up for the defections and sent them throughout Christendom to defend their cause, spread their influence, and win adherents. While these grave and burning discussions were being spread abroad, Boniface IX had succeeded Urban VI at Rome and Benedict XIII had been elected pope at the death of Clement of Avignon. “There are two masters in the vessel who are fencing with and contradicting each other”, said Jean Petit at the Council of Paris (1406). Several ecclesiastical assemblies met in France and elsewhere without definite result. The evil continued without remedy or truce. The King of France and his uncles began to weary of supporting such a pope as Benedict, who acted only according to his humour and who caused the failure of every plan for union. Moreover, his exactions and the fiscal severity of his agents weighed heavily on the bishops, abbots, and lesser clergy of France. Charles VI released his people from obedience to Benedict (1398), and forbade his subjects, under severe penalties, to submit to this pope. Every bull or letter of the pope was to be sent to the king; no account was to be taken of privileges granted by the pope; in future every dispensation was to be asked of the ordinaries.

This therefore was a schism within a schism, a law of separation. The Chancellor of France, who was already viceroy during the illness of Charles VI, thereby became even vice-pope. Not without the connivance of the public power, Geoffrey Boucicaut, brother of the illustrious marshal, laid siege to Avignon, and a more or less strict blockade deprived the pontiff of all communication with those who remained faithful to him. When restored to liberty in 1403 Benedict had not become more conciliating, less obstinate or stubborn. Another private synod, which assembled in Paris in 1406, met with only partial success. Innocent VII had already succeeded Boniface of Rome, and, after a reign of two years, was replaced by Gregory XII. The latter, although of temperate character, seems not to have realized the hopes which Christendom, immeasurably wearied of these endless divisions, had placed in him. The council which assembled a Pisa added a third claimant to the papal throne instead of two (1409). After many conferences, projects, discussions (oftentimes violent), interventions of the civil powers, catastrophes of all kinds, the Council of Constance (1414) deposed the suspicious John XXIII, received the abdication of the gentle and timid Gregory XII, and finally dismissed the obstinate Benedict XIII. On 11 November, 1417, the assembly elected Odo Colonna, who took the name of Martin V. Thus ended the great schism of the West.

(2) From this brief summary it will be readily concluded that this schism did not at all resemble that of the East, that it was something unique, and that it has remained so in history. It was not a schism properly so called, being in reality a deplorable misunderstanding concerning a question of fact, an historical complication which lasted forty years. In the West there was no revolt against papal authority in general, no scorn of the sovereign power of which St. Peter was the representative. Faith in the necessary unity never wavered a particle; no one wished voluntarily to separate from the head of the Church. Now this intention alone is the characteristic mark of the schismatic spirit (Summa, II-II, Q. xxxix, a. 1). On the contrary everyone desired that unity, materially overshadowed and temporarily compromised, should speedily shine forth with new splendour. The theologians, canonists, princes, and faithful of the fourteenth century felt so intensely and maintained so vigorously that this character of unity was essential to the true Church of Jesus Christ, that at Constance solicitude for unity took precedence of that for reform. The benefit of unity had never been adequately appreciated till it had been lost, till the Church had become bicephalous of tricephalous, and there seemed to be no head precisely because there were too many. Indeed the first mark of the true Church consists above all in unity under one head, the Divinely appointed guardian of the unity of faith and of worship. Now in practice there was then no wilful error regarding the necessity of this character of the true Church, much less was there any culpable revolt against the known head. There was simply ignorance, and among the greater number invincible ignorance regarding the person of the true pope, regarding him who was at that time the visible depositary of the promises of the invisible Head. How indeed was this ignorance to be dispelled? The only witnesses of the facts, the authors of the double election, were the same persons. The cardinals of 1378 held successive opinions. They had in turn testified for Urban, the first pope elected, on 8 April, and for Clement of Avignon on 20 September. Who were to be believed? The members of the Sacred College, choosing and writing in April, or the same cardinals speaking and acting contradictorily in September? Fondi was the starting point of the division; there likewise must be sought the serious errors and formidable responsibilities.

Bishops, princes, theologians, and canonists were in a state of perplexity from which they could not emerge in consequence of the conflicting, not disinterested, and perhaps insincere testimony of the cardinals. Thenceforth how were the faithful to dispel uncertainty and form a morally sure opinion? They relied on their natural leaders, and these, not knowing exactly what to hold, followed their interests or passions and attached themselves to probabilities. It was a terrible and distressing problem which lasted forty years and tormented two generations of Christians; a schism in the course of which there was no schismatic intention, unless exception perhaps be made of some exalted persons who should have considered the interests of the Church before all else. Exception should also be made of some doctors of the period whose extraordinary opinions show what was the general disorder of minds during the schism (N. Valois, I, 351; IV, 501). Apart from these exceptions no one had the intention of dividing the seamless robe, no one formally desired schism; those concerned were ignorant or misled, but not culpable. In behalf of the great majority of clergy and people must be pleaded the good faith which excludes all errors and the wellnigh impossibility for the simple faithful to reach the truth. This is the conclusion reached by a study of the facts and contemporary documents. This King Charles V, the Count of Flanders, the Duke of Brittany, and Jean Gerson, the great chancellor of the university, vie with one another in declaring. D’Ailly, then Bishop of Cambrai, in his diocesan synods echoed the same moderate and conciliatory sentiments. In 1409 he said to the Genoese: “I know no schismatics save those who stubbornly refuse to learn the truth, or who after discovering it refuse to submit to it, or who still formally declare that they do not want to follow the movement for union”. Schism and heresy as sins and vices, he adds in 1412, can only result from stubborn opposition either to the unity of the Church, or to an article of faith. This is the pure doctrine of the Angelic Doctor (cf. Tshackert, “Peter von Ailli”, appendix 32, 33).

(3) Most modern doctors uphold the same ideas. It suffices to quote Canon J. Didiot, dean of the faculty of Lille: “If after the election of a pope and before his death or resignation a new election takes place, it is null and schismatic; the one elected is not in the Apostolic Succession. This was seen at the beginning of what is called, somewhat incorrectly, the Great Schism of the West, which was only an apparent schism from a theological standpoint. If two elections take place simultaneously or nearly so, one according to laws previously passed and the other contrary to them, the apostolicity belongs to the pope legally chosen and not to the  other, and though there be doubts, discussions, and cruel divisions on this point, as at the time of the so-called Western Schism, it is no less true, no less real that the apostolicity exists objectively in the true pope. What does it matter, in this objective relation, that it is not manifest to all and is not recognized by all till long after? A treasure is bequeathed to me, but I do not know whether it is in the chest A or in the casket B. Am I any less the possessor of this treasure?” After the theologian let us hear the canonist. The following are the words of Bouix, so competent in all these questions. Speaking of the events of this sad period he says: “This dissension was called schism, but incorrectly. No one withdrew from the true Roman pontiff considered as such, but each obeyed the one he regarded as the true pope. They submitted to him, not absolutely, but on condition that he was the true pope. Although there were several obediences, nevertheless there was no schism properly so-called” (De Papa, I, 461).

(4) To contemporaries this problem was, as has been sufficiently shown, almost insoluble. Are our lights fuller and more brilliant than theirs? After six centuries we are able to judge more disinterestedly and impartially, and apparently the time is at hand for the formation of a decision, if not definitive, at least better informed and more just. In our opinion the question made rapid strides towards the end of the nineteenth century. Cardinal Hergenrother, Bliemetzrieder, Hefele, Hinschius, Kraus, Bruck, Funk, and the learned Pastor in Germany, Marion, Chenon, de Beaucourt, and Denifle in France, Kirsch in Switzerland, Palma, long after Rinaldi, in Italy, Albers in Holland (to mention only the most competent or illustrious) have openly declared in favour of the popes of Rome. Noel Valois, who assumes authority on the question, at first considered the rival popes as doubtful, and believed “that the solution of this great problem was beyond the judgment of history” (I,8). Six years later he concluded his authoritative study and reviewed the facts related in his four large volumes. The following is his last conclusion, much more explicit and decided than his earlier judgment: “A tradition has been established in favour of the popes of Rome which historical investigation tends to confirm”. Does not this book itself (IV, 503), though the author hesitates to decide, bring to the support of the Roman thesis new arguments, which in the opinion of some critics are quite convincing? A final and quite recent argument comes from Rome. In 1904 the “Gerarchia Cattolica”, basing its arguments on the date of the Liber Pontificalis, compiled a new and corrected list of sovereign pontiffs. Ten names have disappeared from this list of legitimate popes, neither the popes of Avignon nor those of Pisa being ranked in the true lineage of St. Peter. If this deliberate omission is not proof positive, it is at least a very strong presumption in favour of the legitimacy of the Roman popes Urban VI, Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII. Moreover, the names of the popes of Avignon, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, were again taken by later popes (in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) who were legitimate. We have already quoted much, having had to rely on ancient and contemporary testimonies, on those of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as on those of the nineteenth and even the twentieth, but we shall transcribe two texts borrowed from writers who with regard to the Church are at opposite poles. The first is Gregorovius, whom no one will suspect of exaggerated respect for the papacy. Concerning the schismatic divisions of the period he writes: “A temporal kingdom would have succumbed thereto; but the organization of the spiritual kingdom was so wonderful, the ideal of the papacy so indestructible, that this, the most serious of schisms, served only to demonstrate its indivisibility” (Gesch. der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter, VI, 620). From a widely different standpoint de Maistre holds the same view: “This scourge of contemporaries is for us an historical treasure. It serves to prove how immovable is the throne of St. Peter. What human organization would have withstood this trial?” (Du Pape, IV, conclusion).

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