The Great Western Schism

by | Nov 27, 2020

Antipope Clement VII

Our current political environment in the U.S. reminds me of the time when the Catholic Church had two popes (and for a short period – three popes). That time of multiple popes is referred to as the Great Western Schism (or just Western Schism or Great Schism).

From 1309 to 1377 the papacy was located in the French city of Avignon. During this time period the French kings had an outsized influence on the papal court and the election of popes. In 1378 Pope Gregory IX returned the papacy to Rome but died within the year.

After Gregory IX’s death there was great political pressure for the election of an Italian pope. The cardinals of the papal court elected an Italian as pope who went by the name of Urban VI. Months after electing Urban VI, the cardinals realized they made a mistake. Urban the VI was so pious that he was hostile to the cardinals and their materialistic lifestyles. So, what did they do? They convened in Avignon a mere five months after they had elected Urban VI and declared their prior election null and void and elected a new pope. This second pope went by the name of Clement VII (note that officially, there was another Pope Clement VII who served as pope in the 1500s — the Avignon Clement VII is often referred to as the antipope).

Clement VII and his Avignon successor Benedict XIII excommunicated their Italian counterparts, Urban VI, and his successors Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII. Of course, the Roman popes excommunicated the French ones right back.

European kings were forced to declare allegiance to either the Roman pope or Avignon pope which inflamed political issues among countries. The dual papacy prolonged the Hundred Year War between England and France.

In 1409 in an attempt to end the schism, 13 cardinals called a council in Pisa to settle the matter. Both popes refused to attend the council and the council ended up electing a third pope, Alexander V. What a mess!

Finally, over the three year period of 1414 – 1417 another council of cardinals was able to resolve the matter. In 1417 the schism was ended with the election of Pope Martin V.

According to Britannica, “the spectacle of rival popes denouncing each other produced great confusion and resulted in a tremendous loss of prestige for the papacy.” People lost faith in the process of electing a pope which eroded the respect for the office of pope.


  1. So weird how history repeats itself, evil people do there own will and selfish needs that benefit them not the people, (such as rigging an election) people rise up and hopefully history is on our side this time.

  2. Not sure how relevant this is in our time. Are Biden and Trump the modern era version of religious leaders? Maybe AOC, Biden and Trump are the equivalent to their followers? Wonder if the capitol of their domain can be moved to St. Louis? How cool is that to think about? Luv2Nap


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