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Rise and Progress of the Schism 

Wycliffe & Hus 

The Claimants 

Council of Constance -- The End of the Schism

The Great Schism of the West (1378-1417)
The Novus Ordo (1958-1997+)

Introduction by Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher, O.F.M. Cap. 

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.  

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 of souls.  

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 Day 

Nihil Obstat: Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D.
Censor Librorum
Imprimatur:  Patrick Cardinal Hayes
Archbishop of New York
May 20, 1930

Chapter 3
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 Pope. 
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:  

    • 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 faith. 
    • The Church was composed only of the predestined.  Prayer and sacraments benefited only the predestined, and sins could not harm them. 
    • No temporal or ecclesiastical superior had authority when he was in a state of mortal sin 
    Here we have Calvinism a century and a half before Calvin.  

    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
--- End of the Great Schism 

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. 
Roman Pontiffs 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
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. 

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. 

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