What's important about the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism?

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Pope Gregory XI returns Catholic Church headquarters to Rome.


This story includes enough drama for a mini-series. Apostolic succession presumes a direct line of authority proceeding from Peter the Apostle to Pope Francis I. That line got blurred during the Western Schism, which inadvertently sprung from the Avignon papacy.

In the 14th century, Rome was in a state of political anarchy and became too dangerous to contain the pope. One pope was imprisoned, and a later one elected under military pressure. In 1309, Clement V moved to Avignon, France, for safety and stability. Six more popes remained at Avignon, and the papal office became increasingly worldly in what was described as "the Babylonian captivity of the papacy". Saint Brigitta of Sweden pleaded with Avignon Pope #6 to return to Rome, but it took Saint Catherine of Siena's relentless spiritual clout to convince Pope Gregory XI (Avignon Pope #7) to comply in 1377.

Not long after returning to Rome, Gregory XI died. The next papal election was influenced by rioting Italians who called for a native successor, and cardinals still behind in Avignon didn't get to vote. The mentally unstable Urban VI was the result. The French cardinals rejected Urban and held their own conclave, electing Clement VII. England and most of Italy sided with Rome; France, Sicily, Scotland, Naples, and Spain preferred the French pope. This led to a 39-year schism that confounded rulers and bishops. Double appointees were obliged to duke out the details in monasteries, religious houses, even parishes.

Urban returned to Avignon and was probably poisoned. Roman cardinals elected Boniface IX, who was promptly excommunicated by the French Clement VII. Boniface reciprocated. Clement died and was replaced with Benedict XIII by the French. The Roman Pope Boniface died, followed by Innocent VII and then Gregory XII. While several popes on both sides had wanted to end the Schism, Gregory and his counterpart Benedict agreed to sponsor the Council of Pisa in 1409 to resolve the problem. The Council deposed both popes and elected another, Alexander V. The other two popes refused this solution. Now there were three popes. Alexander soon died—probably poisoned.

 The Pisa Council replaced him with John XXIII who was hardly better than a pirate. Another Council was held in Constance in 1414 and it elected Pope Martin V. All other contenders lost their supporters and the Petrine successors were thereafter traced through the Roman line of popes.

Mark 3:16; Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17; Acts chs. 1–15

Authority in the Church - David J. Stagaman, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999)

The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile - Edwin Mullins (Ketonah, NY:BlueBridge Books, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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