When There Were Rival Popes
“THEOLOGIANS Urge Democracy in Choice of Popes and Pastors.” Thus the public press recently reported on an assembly of two hundred leading Roman Catholic theologians and scholars meeting in Brussels, Belgium. Also present were six hundred additional Roman Catholic ‘men of the cloth.’ The meeting was termed the “World Congress on the Future of the Church.”1
Less than a year before the Synod of Bishops, an august assembly of over one hundred and forty bishops, archbishops and cardinals had met at the instance of Pope Paul VI himself. It had also stressed the pope’s sharing his rule with others. Reports on this gathering headlined it as a “House Divided,”2 “Pope Under Fire,”3 and “Rebellions Weakening Church, Pope Warns.”4 No wonder that the pope pleads “Obey me,”5 and complains that there exists within his Church “a practically schismatic ferment.”6 A longtime priestly friend of his mused: “Right now he [Paul VI] may be the loneliest man in the world.”7
Speaking of “schismatic ferment” calls to mind the time when two and even three popes at the same time claimed the papacy. In particular was this true during the Great Western Schism.
It was in 1032 that Benedict IX was elected pope at the age of fourteen years.8 “He was a disgrace to the Chair of Peter,” The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us.9 Others report that he “was one of the most profligate ever to occupy the post.”10 Because of his “dissolute life,”* one of the factions in Rome drove him out of his office in 1044, and “amid the greatest disorder” elected Sylvester III as pope. But Benedict IX returned the same year and succeeded in expelling the newly elected Sylvester III.9 Then he wanted to marry, but the father of his intended bride refused to give his consent until Benedict resigned as pope, which he agreed to do.8 However, as this would have left him without an income, for a large sum of money he sold the papacy to his godfather, John Gratian, who was then duly elected, taking the title of Gregory VI. But then Benedict, apparently unable after all to gain his bride, reneged on his bargain and tried to depose Gregory VI, to whom he had sold the papacy.11
Concerning this situation The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “The condition of Rome in particular was deplorable. In St. Peter’s, the Lateran, and in St. Mary Major’s, sat three rival claimants to the papacy. Two of them, Benedict IX and Sylvester III, represented rival factions of the Roman nobility. The position of the third, Gregory VI, was peculiar”—he had received the papacy by paying a large price for it and had even been elected as pope, and now the one who sold it to him wanted it back.12
German King Henry III, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was scandalized by this situation. He refused to acknowledge any of the three rival claimants as pope but marched to Rome with a large retinue of religious and political dignitaries and convened a synod at which two of the rival popes were deposed and the third, Gregory VI, who had bought his office, was prevailed upon to resign. A German bishop was then made pope, Clement II. But no sooner had the emperor left Rome than Benedict IX returned to claim the throne. Henry III hurried back, and so Benedict fled, never to return.9 In passing it should be noted that in those days civil rulers often played a leading role in the election of a pope. In fact, for a time it was traditional practice for German kings to control papal succession.10
Not many years after these events, in 1061, the Roman cardinals elected Alexander II as pope, without first consulting the German court and the Roman nobility. The latter, together with some Lombardy bishops, were able to persuade the German court to convene an assembly of a number of Roman Catholic prelates in Basel, Switzerland. It elected the prelate Cadalus as pope, he taking the title of Honorius II. In the spring of 1062 he marched on Rome with a military force and seized the precincts of St. Peter’s.10 Although excommunicated and driven out by an army favorable to Alexander II, Honorius again marched on Rome and took possession of the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, the pope’s fortress, and for more than a year defied the power of Alexander, who resided at the papal headquarters in the Lateran. Honorius II then fled to his bishopric at Parma and, although anathematized by a papal council, he insisted until the day of his death that he was the rightful pope.13
Regarding this incident in the succession of popes to the papacy the modern historian Latourette states: “For almost the entire reign of Alexander II Cadalus was an annoying rival. Part of the battle was fought in Rome itself with the use of arms on both sides. Tortuous and complicated diplomacy was involved, with the lavish use of money by both sides to purchase the favour of the Roman populace.”10
The Great Western Schism
This schism is so called to distinguish it from the Eastern Schism, which became permanent in 1054 when the emissaries of the Roman pope excommunicated the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the Eastern Schism the Eastern Orthodox churches separated from Rome and refused any longer to recognize the pope of Rome as their head.14
The Great Western Schism began in 1378. Nearly seventy years before, in 1309, Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon, in what is now southeastern France, at the time under the rule of the kings of Sicily. According to one leading historian, seven popes in all, and all of them Frenchmen, ruled from there.10 Roman Catholic historians refer to this period as the “Babylonian Captivity.”15 It appears that this move was made in the first place not without some good reason, as Rome in those days was the scene of great turmoil and strife, part of it occasioned by the papacy itself.10
The seventh and last of these popes, Gregory XI, left Avignon in 1377 and returned to Rome and reestablished the papacy there. When he died on March 27, 1378,11 some cardinals, priests and nobles as well as the Roman populace in general were very much concerned that an Italian pope should be elected so that the papacy might remain in Rome. Sixteen cardinals met in Rome on April 7, and on the following day chose a leading Italian bishop who appeared highly regarded because of his qualifications. This was done while the people of Rome were loudly clamoring for an Italian pope and had even invaded the precincts where the cardinals were deliberating. On the evening of the same day a majority of the cardinals met again and reaffirmed their choice, who then took the title of Urban VI.16
But the cardinals were all too soon regretting their choice. For one thing, they were not at all reform-minded, and Urban was. Moreover, he showed himself obstinate, quick-tempered and arrogant. In his meetings with high church officials he exchanged insults with them. So the cardinals began a silent campaign against him and some months later they met to pick another pope, claiming that their previous election, of Urban VI, was invalid because of their having been intimidated by the Roman populace.10 That earlier conclave had been indeed one of the shortest ever held.16
On the pretext that Rome was too hot a city the offended cardinals met elsewhere.16 The overwhelming majority of them labeled Urban an antichrist and an apostate and demanded that he resign. Of course, he refused. Insisting that they had the power to depose as well as to elect a pope, they declared his post vacant and then on September 20 elected another pope,16 Clement VII.10 This then marked the beginning of the Great Western Schism.16
Clement VII saw fit to return the papacy to Avignon, he himself being French. Almost at once Roman Catholic Europe split into two factions; “the obedience of Urban was more numerous, that of Clement more imposing.”16 Leading “saints” and theologians took sides, even as did the nations of Europe, some siding with Urban, others with Clement. As one historian put it: “Two Popes, with their completely organized courts, demanded the allegiance of Christendom. . . . There were two well-supported Popes, both holding the whole weight of Papal tradition behind them, and, with their successors, dividing Christendom for a period long enough to raise pressing and urgent problems for the faithful.”17
The condition of the papal court in those days is described for us by a papal secretary: “There they talk every day of castles, lands, cities, of all kinds of war weapons, of money; but rarely or never do you hear them speak of purity, alms, justice, faith, or of holy life. So that what was once a spiritual Curia, has become a worldly, devilish, despotic Curia, and worse in character, even in its public life, than any other secular court.”17
Honest men within the Catholic church were outraged. Said one of them: “On account of filthy lucre you will not find a Pope willing to give up his post for the sake of the peace of the Church.”17 Said another: “One Pope excommunicates a man and the other declares him loosed from it. One condemns a man justly, another unjustly justifies him upon appeal; so justice is injured, the keys of the Church are debased, and the sword of St. Peter loses its terror.”17 And said one of the leading Roman Catholic scholars at a council convened to solve the problem: “There are two masters in the vessel who are fencing with and contradicting each other.”18 During this situation four different popes ruled in Rome, two different ones ruled in Avignon, in addition to which two reigned toward the end of this period as a result of the Pisan Council.18
The Council of Constance
Repeatedly councils met in France and elsewhere to heal the breach, but all in vain. “The evil continued without remedy or truce,” The Catholic Encyclopedia says.18 In 1409 a large council met in Pisa, Italy, ostensibly with the hope of ending the schism. But instead of remedying matters it only made them worse, for it resulted in a third pope set forth as the true one, since the two ruling popes refused to recognize this council’s deposition of them. Finally, “after many conferences, projects, discussions (oftentimes violent), interventions of the civil powers, catastrophes of all kinds, the Council of Constance”18 ended the schism. This council was called by the newly elected German King Sigismund, later an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and it was also called by Pope John XXIII.* Of the three ruling popes only John XXIII came, at the head of a large retinue and with 1,600 horses. King Sigismund came with only 1,000 horses. John hoped to overwhelm the council by his large body of adherents but was frustrated in that the council decided to vote along national lines, giving each country one vote.19 When he saw the trend of events he fled on the pretext of poor health. The council charged him with a long list of misdeeds and immoralities, of many of which he certainly was guilty, and on the basis of these deposed him.20
The council pressured weak Gregory XII, the pope living at Rome, to abdicate, which he did. It also tried to pressure Benedict XIII, who was ruling at Avignon at the time, to abdicate. When he refused to do so, the council, after declaring him a perjurer, a heretic and an obstacle to the union of the Catholic church, deposed him.10 Two years later, on November 11, 1417, the council chose a prelate who took the title Martin V.18
Although the Great Western Schism technically ended with the election of Martin V, it actually continued for years thereafter, for Benedict XIII defied his being deposed as long as he lived. In 1424 his successor at Avignon, Clement VIII, elected by the few cardinals that stuck with Benedict XIII, likewise insisted that he was the rightful pope, doing so until 1429, when he finally capitulated. That is why Roman Catholic historians speak of the Great Western Schism as lasting forty years, whereas certain other historians speak of it as lasting fifty years, from 1378 to 1429, instead of until 1417.14
Effects of the Schism
What had largely split the Catholic church was the issue of reform together with the selfish ambitions of greedy men. At the Council of Constance the emphasis was therefore not on reform but on unity. Among the things that must be charged against it is the condemnation and burning of the Bohemian reformer John Huss.10 And while it superficially healed the breach within the Church of Rome, the harm had been done. Thus one historian describes the powerful effect that this great schism had on the distinguished English Roman Catholic scholar and prelate, Wycliffe, as crystallizing his opposition to his church: “The last six years of Wycliffe’s life stand alone as the result of the influence of the Great Schism.”17 And wrote another: “It was the Cardinals at Rome in 1378 who laid the foundation of the movement which culminated in the religious revolt of the sixteenth century.”17 In fact, even the Hussite movement was fruitage of the Great Western Schism, for Huss was influenced by Wycliffe.10
Today there is again much dissension within the Church of Rome. It is faced with a dilemma: not changing fast enough to please the liberal leaders, and going too fast for the conservative elements. No wonder Pope Paul VI complains of a “schismatic ferment” and makes a plea for obedience. While today there are no rival popes, some Catholics are so strongly opposed to the changes being made that they angrily demonstrated against them in the streets of Rome late in 1969. “Some of the more bitter opponents of the updated liturgy have even gone so far as to call Paul a heretical antipope.”7
How far removed is the past and present history of the papacy, with its rival popes and dissensions, from the example and teachings of Jesus! He was lowly in heart and counseled that “whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.” (Matt. 20:27) Furthermore, he said that his followers would be recognized as constituting the true church by their love and unity, not by their divisiveness and resorting to arms.—John 13:34, 35.
And how far removed were the actions of those rival popes from the apostle Paul’s counsel: “There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.”—Phil. 2:3, 4, The Jerusalem Bible.
Would there have been rival popes in bygone days if these words of Jesus and Paul had been followed? Would there be the turmoil that there is within the Roman church today? Does the Roman Catholic Church really fit the description that the Bible gives of true Christians? The facts speak for themselves.
1. The New York Times, Sept. 18, 1970, p. 1.
2. Newsweek magazine, Oct. 27, 1969, p. 73.
3. Time magazine, Oct. 17, 1969, p. 90.
4. The Houston Post, Sept. 18, 1969, p. 10.
5. The Springfield Union, Jan. 29, 1970, p. 6.
6. The Christian Century, April 16, 1969, p. 500.
7. Life magazine, March 20, 1970, p. 30.
8. Atlantic magazine, July 1969, p. 76.
9. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. II, p. 429.
10. A History of Christianity, Latourette, pp. 466, 464, 469, 489, 625, 627, 630, 631, 666, 667.
11. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VI, pp. 791, 799.
12. Ibid., Vol. IV, p. 17.
13. Ibid., Vol. III, pp. 128, 129.
14. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. X, p. 238.
15. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, p. 58.
16. Ibid., Vol. XV, pp. 216, 217.
17. The Great Schism, Jordan, pp. 26, 27, 32, 37, 11.
18. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII, p. 540.
19. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IV, p. 545.
20. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII, p. 435.
The Jesuit Fordham University professor, John L. McKenzie, in his book The Roman Catholic Church (1969), states: “The corruption of the papal court under unworthy men approaches the incredible. . . . The adventurers and bandits who were elected to the papacy had no interest in affirming spiritual leadership of any kind.”—Page 15.
Modern Pope John XXIII evidently took this same name so as to stigmatize the former as an “antipope.”