That Time the Church Had One Pope, and Then Two Popes, and Then Three Popes
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
We’re all familiar with the concept of a “format war,” right? Half the world’s electronics manufacturers are convinced that Blu-ray is exactly what the public needs; the other half just know that HD DVD is the wave of the future; no one gives an inch, so both products get pushed to market and start slugging it out for retail space and consumer dollars; consumers get confused, stay home, and watch Netflix instead. Or something. Right? Anyway, what I want to talk about this week was kind of like that, but for popes. Which kind of makes sense, since consumerism currently fills the void in our souls that religion used to. Right?
This whole thing goes back to 1305, when Pope Clement V was first elected to the papacy. Up until this point, popes had held their courts in Rome since time immemorial, but Clement was a Frenchman and he liked it in France, so he pulled a Melania and set up his court in Avignon. He also started packing the college of cardinals, whose job it was to elect popes, with other Frenchmen, which led to a succession of French popes in Avignon who were—according to many, at least—unduly influenced by the French monarchy.With multiple popes in play, the people could freely listen to whichever pope was convenient for them at the time, sort of like national church-shopping.
In 1377, Pope Gregory XI finally moved the papal throne back to Rome, which you’d think would have put an end to at least some of the controversy, but then he made the mistake of dying barely a year later, which touched off a whole other thing. In short, it led to rioting in the streets, because in the 14th century, people solved problems the exact same way we solve them now, and also because the locals really wanted an Italian pope again. (According to some sources, the protesters went so far as to break into the room below the one where the cardinals were meeting and jab spears up through its floor, because 14th century Rome was awesome.)
The cardinals did their best to comply, since they feared for their lives and all that, and finally landed on Bartolomeo Prignano, (who was a Neapolitan, appropriately enough, since his election would indirectly result in three different flavors of pope). Bartolomeo, who took the name Urban VI, immediately took it upon himself to lead the charge for reform in an increasingly corrupt church. He was also, like, a huge jerk about the whole thing.
It was that last bit that would lead to the biggest ecclesiastical crisis since the Great Schism. Urban immediately turned on the cardinals, preaching against their political corruption and decadent wealth—apparently with fits of violent rage. The cardinals’ response was, of course, “Um, that one was just a practice election.” Then they elected one of their own, Clement VII, as pope “this time for realsies, you guys,” and installed him on the throne in Avignon. And then they had a good pope, and everything was fine.
Haha, no, of course not.
As it turns out, when you elect a second pope, the first one you elected doesn’t magically disappear. So now the church had the fun situation of two different men claiming to be pope, each elected by the exact same college of cardinals, and each serving at a historic seat of the papacy. Obviously, in a church with a tradition of papal infallibility, this is kind of a theological problem, but fortunately for the late medieval Catholic Church, by this point in history the papacy had become more of a political office than a spiritual one. Popes had gotten into the habit of manipulating the power balance in Europe to their advantage by playing monarchs off of each other—so of course, the kingdoms of Europe jumped at the chance to turn the tables on them there—suddenly, they were free to choose their own pope to support, instead of being bound to do whatever they were told. Several countries recognized one pope, while others recognized the other; still others freely listened to whichever pope was convenient for them at the time, sort of like national church-shopping.
Still—at the risk of stating the obvious—there were real problems. When bishops died or retired, dioceses would find themselves with two bishops appointed to them—one by each pope. Plus, how many popes did you need to get excommunicated by before you were actually out of the church? Who could tell?
The solution, for a while, seemed to be a pretty straightforward one: just wait for one pope to die. Clement VII finally complied in 1394, but then the Avignon court just elected a successor, Benedict XIII. The next idea people had was to call a council to straighten the whole thing out, but since only popes were allowed to call councils, that was a non-starter as well. Eventually, in 1409, some renegade bishops tried it anyway, convening the Council of Pisa, which deposed both Benedict XIII and Gregory XII (who by then was the Roman pope) and elected a new pope, Alexander V. This proved to be the perfect solution to their “two popes” problem, in the sense that now there were three popes instead. Alexander V had the decency to die just over a year later, but then, of course, the Pisa court elected yet another pope, John XXII.
John XXII was barely even a priest (having been ordained literally one day before becoming pope), and was possibly a criminal, but he was able to count noses pretty well. He noticed he had more bishops in his corner than either of the other two popes, so he called another ecumenical council, thinking there was no way he could lose. (Gregory XII endorsed this idea as well, and two out of three popes is a quorum, right?) Unfortunately for him, as soon as the council convened, they agreed upon rules that gave equal votes to all three papal courts, and John immediately tried to flee for his life disguised as a letter carrier (no, seriously). They caught him, though, and then secured his and Gregory’s resignations. When Benedict refused to step down, they excommunicated him, for real this time, and then elected an entirely new pope, Martin V.
Oh, and while they had the council going, they went ahead and authorized the execution of early reformer Jan Hus, who had questioned the authority and infallibility of the Catholic Church. Where he got that idea, I can’t imagine.
And anyway, that’s the story of how we went from having one pope to two popes to three popes to one pope again, in just a couple of decades. Fortunately, though, we all learned our lesson, and no one would ever manipulate the Christian church to gain temporal power, ever again.