Rise and Progress of the Schism
Wycliffe & Hus
Council of Constance -- The End of
The Great Schism of the West
The Novus Ordo
We do well to study how the Catholics
in the time of the Great Schism of the West finally solved their problem
in regard to the papacy. For 39 years, they tried to come up with
one pope for all the Catholics, and they continued to fail in their attempts
until they united at the Council of Constance.
Introduction by Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher, O.F.M. Cap.
There are many thorny points of faith and law involved
in the election of the Pope at the Council of Constance. What we
should note is this: with the help of God, that which seemed to be an impossible
situation was finally settled. We should thank God for knowing this
event in history and how it was solved to the glory of God and the salvation
God has His eternal decrees. He can and does use
both the good will of men and the bad will of men to accomplish His final
design, namely, the filling of heaven with Saints. Hence, while we
pray for a solution to our present problem, we must do all we can to assemble
the Catholics for the election of the Pope.
The right and duty to cooperate in the election of the
Pope falls on the shoulders of each and every Catholic with the use of
reason. Not every one can get in on the voting, but each and every
one can get in on the petitioning to God for His special assistance in
accomplishing that great work. It is for the greater honor and glory
of God and the salvation of Souls.
Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher, O.F.M. Cap.
July 15, 1997
A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present
Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D.
Patrick Cardinal Hayes
Archbishop of New York
May 20, 1930
The Great Schism of the West (1378-1417)
1. Rise and Progress of the Schism
The Babylonian Captivity was followed by the Great
Schism, which disrupted ecclesiastical unity for 40 years and brought untold
misfortunes upon the Church. After the death of Gregory XI (1378)
the cardinals had chosen an Italian Pope, Urban VI. During the absence
of the Popes Rome had decayed rapidly. The French cardinals, who
formed the majority in the Sacred College, were dissatisfied with the city
and wished to return to Avignon, where there were no dilapidated basilicas
and ruined palaces, no tumultuous Roman mobs and deadly Roman fevers; where
life was, in one word, more comfortable. Urban VI refused to leave
Rome, and his stern resolve, intimated to them in no mincing words, to
reform the Papal court and break down the luxury of its life, gave deep
offense to the cardinals. Despairing of otherwise escaping from the
desolate city and the violent-tempered Pontiff, the French cardinals fled
from Rome and, meeting together at Fondi in the Kingdom of Naples, declared
Urban’s election invalid, on the ground that the Roman mob had surrounded
the conclave and threatened the cardinals with death unless they should
elect a Roman or an Italian Pope. They proceeded to another election,
which on Sept. 20, 1378, resulted in the choice of the Cardinal of Geneva,
who called himself Clement VII.
The rebel cardinals then wrote to the European courts explaining their
action. Charles V of France and the whole French nation immediately
acknowledged Clement VII, as did also Flanders, Spain, and Scotland.
The Empire and England, with the northern and eastern nations and most
of the Italian Republics, adhered to Urban VI. Under threats from
Wenceslaus, king of the Romans, son and successor of Charles IV, the schismatic
Pope fled from Naples to Avignon, where, under the protection of France,
the rival Papacy was set up.
The schism was now an accomplished fact, and for 40 years Christendom
was treated with the melancholy spectacle of 2 and even 3 rival Popes claiming
its allegiance. It was the most perilous crisis through which the
Church had ever passed. Both Popes declared a crusade against each
other. Each of the Popes claimed the right to create cardinals and
to confirm archbishops, bishops, and abbots, so that there were 2 Colleges
of Cardinals and in many places 2 claimants for the high positions in the
Church. Each Pope attempted to collect all the ecclesiastical revenues,
and each excommunicated the other with all his adherents.
When Urban VI died in 1389, the Roman cardinals elected Boniface IX
to succeed him. Five years later, Clement VII died at Avignon.
The schism might now have been healed, but the French cardinals chose the
Spaniard Peter de Luna, who had been one of the ruling spirits in the election
of Urban VI. He styled himself Benedict XIII. Voices were heard
on all sides demanding that union be restored. The universities of
Paris, Oxford and Prague took the matter up and began negotiations to end
the schism. The University of Paris, or rather, its 2 most prominent
professors, John Gerson and Peter d’Ailly, proposed that a General Council
should be summoned to decide between the rival claimants. Many refused
to accept this solution, rightly claiming that the Pope was supreme in
the Church and could be judged by no one. But, as the situation grew
worse from day to day, and no other way seemed possible, the 2 Colleges
of Cardinals agreed to call a General Council. It met at Pisa in
1409, and was largely attended, especially by those of the Avignon obedience.
After declaring its competency to try the rival Popes, it cited them to
appear before it for trial. Neither of the Popes recognized its authority,
and neither obeyed its summons. The cardinals then pronounced their
deposition, and elected another Pope, Alexander V, fondly hoping that they
had achieved the union of Christendom. But the scandal was only increased,
for neither of the Popes yielded. There were now 3 Popes, and 3 Colleges
of Cardinals, in some dioceses 3 rival bishops, and in some Religious Orders
3 rival superiors.
The Synod of Pisa was no Ecumenical Council; it has never
been regarded as such by the Church. It was from the outset, as Pastor
says, an act of open revolt against the Pope, a denial of the Primacy of
St. Peter and the monarchical constitution of the Church. It was
the first attempt to put into practice the theory of William of Occam,
John Gerson, and Peter d’Ailly that a General Council is superior to the
Alexander V survived his election only 11 months. The Pisan cardinals,
who had the support of the greater part of Christendom, continued the Pisan
line of Popes by electing the warlike Cardinal Baldassare Cossa, who took
the name of John XXIII.
Editor’s Note: In
this document, all references to John XXIII refer to the schismatic
pope of the Pisa synod whose “reign” ran from 1410-1417, and not to the
false pope, John XXIII, of the 20th Century.
2. Wycliffe and Hus
To the other trials of the Church was also added that
of heresy. Whenever abuses against the moral and disciplinary teachings
of the Church have been widespread, errors against her doctrinal truths
have obtained a ready acceptance, especially if the cloak of zeal for moral
reform was thrown over them. The Englishman John Wycliffe and the
Bohemian John Hus were the chief heresiarchs of this period.
Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire about 1324, studied at
Oxford, and entered the priesthood. He openly espoused the cause
of Edward III when the latter refused the contributions levied on England
by the Holy See. His lectures and sermons against the temporal power
and the temporal possessions of the Church were loudly applauded.
The Church must become poor once more, he said, as she was in the time
of the Apostles.
Wycliffe's heresies included:
Here we have Calvinism a century and a half before Calvin.
He attacked the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and
the divine institution of the hierarchy, as well as Indulgences, Auricular
Confession, Extreme Unction and Holy Orders.
The Bible alone, without Tradition, was the sole rule of
The Church was composed only of the predestined. Prayer
and sacraments benefited only the predestined, and sins could not harm
No temporal or ecclesiastical superior had authority when
he was in a state of mortal sin
At first Wycliffe enjoyed the favor and protection of
the English court and the parliament; but when the common people carrying
the teachings of the Oxford professor to their practical conclusions, raised
the standard of revolt against the wealthy landowners and refused obedience
to the secular and ecclesiastical authorities, his protectors turned against
him. His heretical teachings were condemned by the Council of London
(1382), and he was deprived of his professorship at Oxford by royal order.
He died 2 years later.
The alliance between the royal houses of England and Bohemia
– Richard II of England had married Anne, the daughter of the King of Bohemia
– led to an increase of intercourse between these countries. In this
way Wycliffe’s ideas found entrance into Bohemia. John, surnamed
Hus (from the place of his birth, Husinec), professor at the University
of Prague, espoused them enthusiastically. He translated Wycliffe’s
chief work, the Trialogus, into Czech, and helped to circulate it even
after the ecclesiastical authorities had condemned 45 of Wycliffe’s propositions
in 1403. He made all the errors of Wycliffe his own, except his rejection
of the doctrine of Transubstantiation; he preached, however, that the Holy
Eucharist must be received under both species by the faithful. Summoned
to appear before John XXIII, he sent representatives in his stead, and
sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him (1411). When
he continued to propagate his errors – one of his favorite sayings was
that a Czech can teach nothing false – and to incite his countrymen to
revolt, more vigorous action was taken by the civil and ecclesiastical
authorities. We shall meet Hus again at the Council of Constance.
3. The Council of Constance
A list of the Popes and Anti-popes during the Great
Schism will show how matters stood in the year 1414 when, at the insistence
of the Emperor Sigismund, John XXIII summoned the Council of Constance.
--- End of the Great Schism
John XXIII had consented not only to convoke the Council of Constance,
but also to attend it in person, because he hoped that it would confirm
his as Sovereign Pontiff.
||Anti-popes at Avignon
|Urban VI, 1378-1389
||Clement VII, 1378-1394
|Boniface IX, 1389-1404
||Benedict XIII, 1394-1415
|Innocent VII, 1404-1406
||Line of the Council of Pisa
|Gregory XII, 1406-1415
||Alexander V, 1409-1410
||John XXIII, 1410-1417
The Council of Constance was one of the most memorable in the history
of the Church. It was in a sense an international congress.
Eighteen thousand ecclesiastics of all ranks took part in it, besides hundreds
of laymen from all parts of Europe. Although called primarily for
the purpose of ending the Schism, 2 other important matters were to be
dealt with: the heresy of John Hus and the reform of the Church in her
head and members.
The case of the Czech heresiarch was settled first. In order to
put a stop to his revolutionary agitation in Bohemia, Sigismund had cited
Hus to present himself before the Council at Constance, giving him a verbal
promise that he could return in safety to Bohemia. The written document
– the so-called “safe-conduct” was nothing but a passport, which did not
guarantee the inviolability of his person. At the Council, Hus refused
to retract his errors, was condemned as an obstinate heretic, and handed
over to the secular arm. He was burned at the stake July 6, 1415.
The bloody Hussite wars, which devastated Bohemia and parts of Germany
for nearly 2 decades, were the aftermath of this execution.
When John XXIII saw that his hopes of being acknowledged as Pope were
illusory, he fled from the city, disguised as a groom. He was captured,
returned to the Council and deposed. Gregory XII, the true Pope,
who had long promised to abdicate, now redeemed his promise, but first
by a solemn act declared the Council true and legitimate. Sigismund,
who had done all in his power to induce Benedict XIII , of the Avignon
line, to abdicate, succeeded in detaching the Spaniards from his cause.
Thereupon the Council declared his deposition, July 16, 1417. Benedict
disregarded the sentence, and in his rocky Castle of Peniscola obstinately
maintained his claim to be regarded as the only true Pope till his death,
Nov. 29, 1422, in his 92nd year.
The next step of the Council was to elect a new Pontiff. The choice
fell on Cardinal Otto Colonna, a Roman, who took the name of Martin V.
When the Council addressed itself to the matter of reform, it was at once
apparent that no thoroughgoing reforms could be made. There was no
agreement as to where the Council or the Pope should conduct the reforms;
there was no agreement even as to what reforms should be undertaken.
Finally, the question was left to the Pope, who promised to call another
Council within 10 years to reform the Church. The Council was dissolved
in May 1418. The new Pope approved “all that the Council had resolved
as a Council in matters of faith,” expressly rejecting the decrees of the
4th and 5th sessions, which had declared that the Council held its authority
immediately from God, and that even the Pope was subject to it.
Martin V, true to his promise, called another General
Council, to meet at Basel, in 1431; but he died before it began its sessions.
Eugene IV (1431-1447) suppressed the Council at the end of the year; but
it withstood the suppression and continued to hold its meetings.
The chief business to come before it was the question of the Hussite heresy
in Bohemia, which it finally settled by making a very sensible compromise
(known as the famous Compactata) with the conservative wing of the
Bohemian sectarians. Eugene, now finding that the Council was doing
good service to the Church, again approved it and declared it ecumenical.
It was not long, however, before the Council engaged in a quarrel with
the Pope over the question of authority. It lost the support of public
opinion and the prestige which it had gained by its laudable attempts at
reform when it deposed the Pope and renewed the schism by electing an anti-pope
– Felix V – the last in the history of the Church (Editor’s Note:
until, of course, the 20th century). In 1449 the Council yielded
to Pope Nicholas V and dissolved itself. This practically ended the
period which is known in Church History as the “Conciliar Epoch.”
In 1459 Pope Pius II forbade all appeals to a General Council. The
best minds in Europe recognized that what Christendom needed most was a
“spiritual rejuvenation,” and that this depended for its success on the
leadership of the divinely appointed head of Christendom, the Pope.
Whilst the refractory Council of Basel was in session, Eugene IV convoked
another Synod, which was opened at Ferrara in 1438 and was transferred
to Florence in the following year. This Council brought about a temporary
reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches. The Greeks attended
it in large numbers; the Emperor himself, John Paleologus, was present
with the Patriarch of Constantinople. The chief promoter of reunion
was the learned and virtuous Greek bishop Bessarion of Nicaea, who was
later elevated to the cardinalate.
The Greeks accepted the Filioque of the Latin
Creed (the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the
Son) and the Primacy of the Pope, whilst the Council permitted the Greeks
to retain all their ancient rites and customs. -- Only fear of the
Turks had induced the Emperor and his Patriarch to come to Italy and to
sign the articles of reunion: they hoped that the West would help them
in their impending struggle with Mohammed II. The reunion never was
practically carried out. In 1453 Constantinople fell into the hands
of the Turks. The Greek Empire had ceased to exist. “Rather
Turks than Papists,” has been the answer of the Greeks to every subsequent
advance of the Latins.