The Catholic Church in the 14th and 15th Centuries

By Rev. John Trigilio, Rev. Kenneth Brighenti

Whereas Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) epitomized the zenith of papal power and influence, Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) personified one of the most complicated, mysterious, and at times contradictory pontificates of the Church.

King Philip IV of France and Boniface became bitter enemies early on. Their relationship worsened over time, and in 1303, Philip sent mercenaries to arrest and bully Boniface into resigning. He was beaten and humiliated at Anagni but refused to quit. The local citizens arose to his defense and rescued him. He intended to excommunicate Philip but died before the excommunication could be enacted.

After his death, Pope Benedict XI was elected, but he proved too weak and conciliatory to tangle with Philip. His nine-month reign evenly split the College of Cardinals between those who hated the French for what Philip did to Boniface and French sympathizers who wanted to reconcile and move on.

Pope Clement V (1305–1314) followed Benedict. The papal coronation took place in Lyons, and Clement never set foot in Rome. Four years into his pontificate, Clement moved to his French palace at Avignon, allegedly to escape the dangerous mobs in Rome, because he was French and easily influenced by King Philip who offered to protect him.

After Pope Clement arrived in Avignon, the popes remained there for 70 years — the same amount of time that the Jews were held captive in Babylon; hence the term Babylonian Captivity of the Popes.

Philip ensured his prestige by pressuring Clement to appoint more French cardinals than Italian ones. This way, when he died, the majority (two-thirds) would elect another Frenchman, which they did again and again.

Seventy years passed with seven popes in Avignon, while the people in Rome endured having no resident bishop. Enough was enough, said St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), who made her way to France and pleaded with Pope Gregory XI (1370–1378) to return to Rome where the pope, as bishop of Rome, belongs. He listened and moved the papacy back to the Eternal City.

Two popes at the same time means double trouble

Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, and the conclave that met to choose his successor was ready to pick another Frenchman so that he could move back to France. But Italian mobs in Rome had other ideas. The Italians became so animated about the non-Italian pope thing that they pried the roof off the conclave at the Vatican and shouted at the cardinals, many of whom were French, “Give us a Roman pope, or at any rate, an Italian.” The conclave quickly elected the oldest, most feeble Italian cardinal — 60-year-old Urban VI. The plan was to choose someone with one foot in the grave, return to France, and then, after the pope died, hold another conclave in France. But as soon as he was elected, Urban perked up and showed his real mettle. After he was made pope, his health improved, and he began the necessary reforms of the hierarchy to curb abuse and corruption.

You can imagine how the French felt when they realized that the pope would not return to France and that he intended to make reforms. Instead of going back to France, the French cardinals fled to Fondi in the Kingdom of Naples to decide their next move. They realized Urban would be around for a while and would also clean house. The French cardinals cried foul and said that the election of Urban VI was invalid. They claimed they were under pressure and duress to elect an Italian or suffer the angry mob. So with King Philip’s blessing, five months after the election of Urban VI in Rome, the Avignon conclave (all the French cardinals) met in 1378 at the Cathedral of Fondi and elected the antipope (the term used for an invalidly elected pope) Clement VII in Naples. Born in Geneva, Clement was neither French nor Italian (so he seemed like a good compromise) but spent most of his priesthood in France anyway. Eight months later he fled to Avignon.

At that point, a full-blown schism (division in the church) existed. Some Catholics obeyed and followed the Roman Pope Urban, and other Catholics followed the Avignon Pope Clement instead. When Urban died in 1389, the cardinals elected Boniface XI to succeed him. Five years later, Clement died, and the schism could have ended, but the French cardinals elected another antipope — Benedict XIII. So two men still claimed to be pope at the same time.

Better make that three

Having two men claiming to be pope simultaneously got so frustrating that scholars and secular rulers got in on the act and called for a General Council of the Church. The problem was that only a pope could call a council and only a pope could approve or reject its decrees. And neither the Avignon Pope Benedict nor the Roman Pope Boniface wanted to resign or step down.

In 1409, an illicit Council did meet in Pisa with neither pope present and without either’s sanction. The cardinals who attended deposed both popes and elected a third one, Alexander V. Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire. Suddenly, three different popes claimed the throne of St. Peter: The Roman pope, the Avignon pope, and the Pisan pope. Each one denounced the other, and most of the faithful were genuinely confused as to who the real pope was.

The Pisan Pope Alexander V survived only 11 months, and his successor was John XXIII. (Because he’s not recognized as a legitimate pope, when Angelo Roncalli was elected pope in 1958, he took the name and number John XXIII.)

A solution to the too-many-popes issue

The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund demanded a General Council at Constance. The 16th Council of the Church met from 1414–1418. All cardinals and bishops had to attend, and 18,000 clerics took part as well. The agenda included finding a solution to the Great Schism, and one was found. Martin V was chosen to be the one and only pope, and the others were asked to resign or else. The Council also denounced and condemned the writings of John Wyclif (English) and Jan Hus (Bohemian) as heretical. Hus was turned over to secular authorities and burned at the stake in 1415. Wyclif had died in 1384.

Roman Pope Gregory XII, the true pope, voluntarily resigned after formally approving of the Council of Constance. (Without papal approval, this council would’ve become as lame as the Council of Pisa.) But Avignon’s Benedict XIII refused to resign and was deposed publicly. Pisan’s John XXIII tried to escape, but he was caught and deposed. Martin V (1417–1431) was then the only claimant and only recognized pope — the Bishop of Rome and Supreme Roman Pontiff.

The Church survived, but the wounds and scars ran deep and came back to haunt it later. The crisis of the Great Schism greatly weakened the political power of the papacy and sowed the seeds for anti-papal arguments during the Reformation.

The Black Death

As if the Babylonian Captivity (Avignon papacy) and the Great Schism (three popes at once) weren’t enough, another fly in the ointment was the Black Death — the bubonic plague — killing 25 million people in five years. That’s more than one-third of all Europe.

The Black Death lasted from 1347 to 1352. The largest percentage of casualties came from the lower clergy because parish priests were needed to give the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (then known as Extreme Unction), and they became infected. So many priests died from the plague that an extreme vocations crisis arose. In desperation, many bishops and religious superiors accepted unworthy, incompetent, or inadequately trained candidates for Holy Orders. This led to the introduction of many ignorant, superstitious, unstable, untrustworthy clerics running around Europe.

In the aftermath of the plague, amid immense devastation in Europe, abuses proliferated in the Church due to the poorly trained, immoral, and unreliable clergy filling in for all the good and holy ones who died from the plague. And the upper clergy (bishops, cardinals, and popes) fared no better. Their plague didn’t come from a flea hiding on a rat but from their own hearts. Nepotism, greed, lust, avarice, envy, sloth — you name it, they did it. Not all the hierarchy, of course — not even the majority. But even one case was too many.