"The Great Schism" discredited Catholicism more than anything else in its history. When Pope Urban VI died, the Italian Cardinals might have solved the whole sorry mess had they simply recognized Clement VII as Pope. Typically, the Roman Cardinals refused to admit the correct position of the French Cardinals and they set out to elect a new Roman Pope. Then in 1394 when Clement VII died, the French could have elected the current Roman Pope but didn't. After 1390 Cardinals in both camps promised to end the schism if elected Pope, but when they became Pope they evaded the issue.

Europe remained divided into two camps. France and England remained at odds over the papal question and other political issues. France recognized the Avignon Pope while England supported the Roman pontiff. Everyone was confused. Both Popes appointed successors to vacancies. Two papal courts, complete with full complements of Cardinals, papal bureaucrats and expenses increased financial exploitation.

More and more calls for reform came from the church and the secular realm. Tragically, the papacy couldn't enact reform. Reform, when it came, originated in other bodies.

Even as the fifteenth century began, the schism continued. National developments offered potential solutions to the division. If the papacy could not reform itself, perhaps the answer rested in councils comprised of bishops representing all of the church.

Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham, fourteenth century philosophers and theologians, discussed conciliar theory in their writings,  holding that the clergy was a historical development rather than Christ's command. They maintained the church itself holds the true authority. The council of bishops represented the church. These ideas came from ideas published by other influential thinkers. John of Paris (d. 1306) said the church's authority rested not on its head but extended to its members. He even suggested the Pope might err, but not the church. Most Canon lawyers accepted the concept. Their understanding can be expressed, "The Council (with the Pope) is greater than the Pope (by himself)." It is no accident that  these theories coincided with the developing political theory. Parliamentary theory stated that power rested with the people represented in an elected assembly. Just as government's power rested upon the people, so church government ultimately rested upon the bishops assembled in council. The Pope related to the council just as the King related to the state.

Two German thinkers promoted these ideas shortly after the schism occurred. As early as 1379 Henry of Langenstein and Konrad of Gelnhausen argued that a general council judged both Popes and the Cardinals who elected them. In 1393, the University of Paris sent a memorandum to King Charles VI of France demanding the resignation of both Popes' . The University intended to form a Council to settle the issue if the Popes refused. Jean Gerson and Pierre D'Ailly, both French, spoke for the University.

By the turn of the century, French University men applied pressure to the French King withdraw his support from Avignon. Pope Benedict XIII (1394-1422) refused to compromise his position by resigning. In Rome, Gregory XII (1406-1415) refused to resign unless Benedict did so.

In 1407, the University of Paris requested that the king withdraw his support from Benedict. In 1408, four Cardinals from each camp along with six others met in Leghorn, Italy, and called for a Council to meet at Pisa beginning March 25, 1409. The French king supported a Council consisting of 22 Cardinals, 12 Archbishops, 80 Bishops, 87 Abbots and more than 300 theologians in Pisa. Another 14 Archbishops, 102 Bishops and 200 Abbots were there in proxy. The Council summoned both Popes but both adamantly refused to attend. The Council, on June 5, 1409, declared both Popes obstinant and deposed them. Under Council authorization the Cardinals present selected a new Pope, Alexander V. Now there are three Popes.

Alexander, a learned and pious man, created tremendous optimism that he could settle the schism. Benedict no longer operated from a position of strength. At the same time, Gregory's support also ebbed away as Romans threw their support to Alexander. Perhaps Alexander could have ended the schism, but he died just ten months after his election. Since the Council still sat is session, it selected another Pope, John XXIII.

While Alexander's policies and attitude worked toward ending the schism, John's exacerbated the problems. John was a deceitful, cruel, and tyrannical individual who was corrupt and immoral in his private life. He held sufficient support to end the schism, but he only succeeded in making conciliarists look bad. John moved to Rome where he drove Gregory out with a military force. Once in Rome, he squandered his support and did nothing to end the schism. Modern Catholics repudiate the Pisan Council and denominate both Alexander and John anti-popes. For that reason alone, another Pope took John XXIII as his name in 1958.

Conciliarists called for another Council to settle the issues. Sigismund, the German Emperor, supported this call and pressured Pope John into summoning it together. The Council of Constance met from 1414-1418 and enjoyed  greater support than the Council of Pisa. While Pope Gregory did not support the Council, he agreed to resign if Benedict would also resign. Benedict resigned and was forced from Avignon to spend the remainder of his life excommunicating the world from a mountain in Spain.

The Council of Constance was the largest religious assembly of the age. Estimates placed attendances at 18,000 clergy with another 150,000 present. Recent scaled down estimates suggest a more modest 15,000 to 20,000, still a significant size. When John XXIII arrived, his baggage and companions required 1,600 horses to carry them. Sigismund's party required 1,000 horses.

Once the Council began, John tried to control it by packing it with Italians. Alert conciliarists, however, blocked this effort with a demand that each major nationality receive only one vote. Once accepted, that rule made it possible to outvote the Italians. When John realized this, he pleaded illness and prepared to leave. Once away from Constance, John denounced the Council and demanded its adjournment. Loyal churchmen began leaving but conciliarists persuaded Sigismund to send soldiers after John. Jean Gerson preached a sermon which pointed out the council's superiority to the whole church -- including the Pope. Soldiers retrieved John and he remained a prisoner for the rest of the Council. The Council then passed the decree Sacrosanta which stated the Council derived its authority from the assembled Church, thus from Christ. In May the Council officially deposed John.

Technically, Gregory remained in office and Benedict claimed to still be Pope, but no one listened. On July 4, 1415, Gregory resigned after legitimizing the Council. Since Pope Gregory gave the Council legitimacy, the Catholic Church recognizes the Council of Constance. The Council then deposed Benedict in July, 1417. Finally, there was no Pope.

The question remained, should the Council continue reform or select a new Pope? They adopted a compromise. They decided to elect a reform minded Pope who would push for greater reform. To assure conciliarism's future, the Council passed Frequens in October, 1417. According to Frequens, the church must hold a Council after five years, then another after seven years, and then every decade thereafter.  This decree supposedly guaranteed a check over the papacy. Nine days later Gregory XII died and on November 8, the Cardinals went into conclave along with six deputies from each of the four national groups. The French hoped to secure the papacy for Pierre D'Ailly, but it went to an Italian who took the name Martin V (1417-1431). The schism was finally healed!

Martin was a good Pope interested in reform. He  maintained that nothing should control the papacy and the papacy should control reform. Within months of his election, he manipulated the Council by appealing to various national interests. The Council agreed to adjourn on April 22, 1418. Just a few weeks later, Martin declared it "unlawful for any one either to appeal from the judgments of the Apostolic See or to reject its decisions in matters of faith." Martin returned to Rome and rebuilt papal authority so well it survived even the worst of the Renaissance Popes. To his discredit, he carried out few of the reforms proposed and enacted at Constance.

Frequens called for a Council after five years. Pressure from the people and from the University of Paris forced Martin to act. In 1423, he called for a Council at Pavia. Because of an outbreak of Plague it was moved to Sienna. A French-English war along with Spanish campaigns against Moors kept attendances low. The Pope blocked reform efforts and he dissolved the Council a year later.

In 1431, Martin called another Council for Basle, Switzerland. Martin died before the Council began and Eugenius IV replaced him. The Council opened in July without a single Bishop present. By October, attendance picked up some but Eugenius tried to dissolve it in December. Conciliarists refused to dissolve the counsil and found support in Sigismund. Nicolas of Cusa wrote Concordia Catholica to defend the Council insisting the Pope was only one member of the church. Eugenius found the conciliarists in control, a rebellion in Rome forced him out of the city and in 1433 scholars called the Donation of Constantine fraudulent. Over Eugenius's opposition, the Council enacted several reforms to eliminate abuses . In May, 1438, a national French Synod met at Bourges and adopted the reforms. Now referred to as the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, the result was a French church with its own flavor.

While Basle is in session the Byzantine Empire became increasingly wobbly. Eastern Emperor John VIII (1423-1448) came west seeking military help. He assumed a reunion with Rome was a prerequisite. Churchmen immediately saw an opportunity to reunite the two churches. The Council suggested further negotiations in Basle or Avignon. The Pope suggested Florence. The Greeks preferred Florence simply because it was closer to their borders, but the disagreement precipitated a crisis. Some of the Council continued meeting in Basle while the majority moved to Florence. Eugenius tried to dissolve the Council in Basle but the conciliarists there refused and became increasingly radical.

The continuing Council actually met in Ferrara, Italy, in 1438 where they received the Greek envoys. In January, 1439, the Council moved to Florence. The two sides resurrected all the old issues which separated east and west, but papal recognition proved the real hangup. The Council adopted a vague statement in July, 1439, but the Greeks promptly rejected it. In 1472, a formal synod in Constantinople repudiated any proposed union and anathematized those who took part in the negotiations. Some eastern churches, however, did accept papal authority. For example, the Armenian church accepted papal authority in 1439 and the Jacobite church in Syria accepted papal authority in 1442. We refer to both groups as Uniate churches. These churches operate under the papal umbrella but are independent in matters of liturgy and administration.

Germany's Emperor Sigismund died in 1437 leaving Basle in radical hands. In the spring of 1439, the Basle radicals proclaimed Councils superior to Popes and made this pronouncement a matter of faith. They deposed Eugenius on the charge of heresy in June, 1439, and by November they replaced him with Felix V. The Council over-reached itself and Felix had little support. Desperate for cash, the Council claimed the right to issue indulgences. Since European churches did not want another schism, they flocked to Eugenius's defense. Eugenius declared the Basle group heretic and excommunicated. The Council assembled in Florence issued Esti non dubitemus which declared the Pope superior to Councils. The Florentine group moved to Rome where they dissolved in 1445.

Things only got worse in Basle. The Germans and the French both declared support for Eugenius and Felix resigned in 1449. Eugenius rewarded him by making him a Cardinal. The remnant in Basle named Nicholas V pope and when Eugenius died in 1448 astute Cardinals allowed Nicholas to succeed him. In 1460 Pope Pius II issued Execrabilis prohibiting any appeal from Pope to Council.

Thus ended Conciliarism. What began with great promise ended in defeat. All reform proposals rested in papal hands. Nicholas V was the first of the Renaissance Popes and these men had no interest in reform. Elimination of abuses awaited the Protestant Reformation. At this point, the Popes have firm control.

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