At this very moment the cardinals gathered in the Vatican are arguing about who shall be the next Pope, following Benedict XVI’s resignation on grounds of health. While the octogenarian Ratzinger rests ( and he certainly deserves to) in Castelgandolfo, dozens of seniors of the Catholic Church will shortly approach the moment when they must vote for the new Pontiff, and we will see white (or possibly) black smoke puffing from the famous chimney, installed again only two days ago. But many Catholic co-religionists do not even know that at the time of the Great Schism in the fourteenth century, there were at one time three popes!
One was in the Vatican, in an Italy torn by internal strife, and threats of invasion; another resided in Avignon, in France. The schism would last thirty years, enough time for Pope Urban (in Rome) to be replaced at his death by Pope Boniface IX, only for his death to produce Gregory XII. Meanwhile, Pope Clement in Avignon was succeeded by Benedict XIII.
The obstinacy of the Rome and Avignon popes made it impossible for the schism to end, though excuses for their obduracy are present: they both had supporters, relatives and clients to plan and provide for, but as religious historians say, it is hard to avoid severe reflection, because having two popes did Catholics little good, and greatly helped surging heresy and the beginnings of Protestantism – as inevitable consequences.
There was no solution in Law to the constitutional impasse that had made one pope set himself up in France while another still ruled in Rome. Both ‘colleges’ of cardinals did their level best to come to some agreement. They tried to solve the problem by summoning a special council at an agreed place, but neither pope was having any of it.
Finally the cardinals lost patience, if they had had any before, and summoned a Council at Pisa in 1409, on their own authority. It only made things worse; nobody could be sure that the summons itself was legal, added to the fact that the response to the summons was minimal. Still, the cardinals present declared both popes deposed, and decided to elect another! There were now three popes instead of one supreme leader of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. Alexander V was the pope at Pisa, but he died and was promptly replaced by a successor, Cardinal Baldassare Cossa, who became Pope John XXIII ( which is where I become utterly confused because I thought there was a tubby and jolly John XXIII in the twentieth century).
Here are all the popes of the Great Schism, starting with the Prelate who started it all, Pope Gregory XI, who died in 1378:-
Rome: Urban VI (1378 – 89); Boniface IX (1389 – 1404); Innocent VII (1404 – 06); Gregory XII (1406 – 15)
Avignon: Clement VII (1378 – 94); Benedict XIII (1394 – 1423). After his deposition by the Council of Constance, Benedict clung on to the papacy, and at his death a successor was appointed – Clement VIII, but he was not recognised outside the County of Armagnac.
Pisa: In June 1409 the Council of Pisa deposed BOTH Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. The latter never recognised the authority of this Council: it then elected Alexander V as the (Pisa) Pope, and he was succeeded by John XXIII.
The Council of Constance deposed both Gregory XII and John XXIII (who recognised its authority) and Benedict XIII (who did not!) After this the following were elected:- Martin V (1417 – 31); Eugenius IV (1431 – 47) and Nicholas V (1447 – 55). In 1449, therefore, with Nicholas as Pope and the various Councils dissolved, the troubles which the Great Schism has caused were over.