Taken from the highest ranks of the clergy, popes should be among the best living pastors, biblical scholars, and theologians. That this has often not been the case is obvious enough throughout history, as any well-informed Roman Catholic will concede. (More than a few instances of corruption and heresy may be found on the Protestant side as well.)

However, Benedict XVI has regularly been impressive on these counts. Living alongside Protestants in Germany, he often engages Reformation views with more sympathy and knowledge than most—especially more than many Protestants who convert to Rome and trade on caricatures of the evangelical faith based on the worst of evangelicalism.

One example of Pope Benedict’s judicious engagement is the way he explains the context that helped to provoke the Reformation. Though he realizes that there was more to it, he refers to the Great Western Schism (1309-1417). Not many people know about this today, so it’s worth considering.

Often called the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” the Schism was provoked by the election of rival popes and the removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France. Before becoming pope, Benedict explained,

For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form–the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 196)

Throughout the Middle Ages there had been a running feud between popes and kings, leading to excommunication from the one and imprisonment by the other. However, the disruption of the papal succession provoked widespread anxiety within the church—and indeed, the whole of Christendom. Between 1305 and 1377, the pope was French and so were most of his cardinals. The schism was consummated when Pope Urban VI in Rome and Pope Clement VII in Avignon excommunicated each other—and therefore all of those under each other’s respective sees. They continued this division by appointed their own successors.

Who would resolve this stand-off? Some leading theologians had argued for a while that church councils always had priority over the pope until fairly recently. The early ecumenical councils were a prime example.

However, in this case councils it became clear that councils, too, were fallible. The Council of Pisa (1409) elected a third pope to replace the two rivals. At the Council of Constance (1414-18), where the reformer Jan Hus was condemned to the flames, the two rival popes and the third pope were replaced now by a fourth, Martin V. It came at a cost to the papacy: the Council declared its sovereignty over the pope. Pope Martin, who could not attend, declared its position on this matter null. As a binding council, some Roman Catholic theologians today invoke its memory for a new conciliar movement.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, leading theologians defended the authority of Scripture over councils and of councils over the pope, drawing on the example of the ancient church. Arguing that Scripture is above the whole church, William of Ockham (d. 1349) argued that the whole church (including laity) should hold a council to elect the pope and limit his authority. It is this whole church that is the communion of saints, not the Roman church. If a pope falls into heresy, a council can judge him without his approval. Marsilius of Padua agreed (Defensor Pacis, 1324): the church consists of all the faithful, not just priests. Christ is the only head of the church. More conservative reformists defended the principle of Scripture’s magisterial authority and the priority of councils over the papacy. These included the leading Sorbonne theologian Jean Gerson, as well as Pierre d’Ailly, Francesco Zabarella, and Nicholas of Cusa.

The last gasp of the conciliar movement came at the Council of Basel (1431-49). Papalists formed Council of Florence, while conciliar party in Basel elected another pope. Martin called it but died before it met. Eugenius IV succeeded him and was prevented by health from presiding. He couldn’t have done so in any case, as the fathers declared (on the basis of Constance) that the Council was superior to the pope. Eugenius made concession after concession until he finally submitted. His papal legates could only attend if they accepted this as well, though they were duplicitous afterwards.

Finally, on the eve of the Reformation, Pope Julius II reasserted papal primacy and packed the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) with cardinals who supported him. Thomas Cajetan, famous (among other things) as Luther’s curial opponent, staunchly defended papal primacy. In condemning the Reformation, the Council of Trent also condemned positions that had been argued by theologians well within its pale for centuries.

With the First Vatican Council in the 1850s, papal infallibility became binding dogma—necessary for salvation. In spite of a few statements in Lumen Gentium exploited by more liberal theologians, Vatican II and the latest Catholic Catechism reaffirm that there is no full and perfect communion with Christ apart from obedience to the pope. Before becoming Benedict XVI, and since, Cardinal Ratzinger defended these views with great energy and skill. I have no doubt that he will continue to do so.

But this tale does clear our eyes from the foggy mists of sentimentalism. Is the Roman Catholic Church united by an unbroken succession from St. Peter? Roman Catholic theologians—and especially historians—know that an uncomplicated “yes” will not do. Are the church’s decisions irreformable? Then what about the Council of Constance? Even the Council of Basel was a duly constituted synod. Whose conclusions are binding? At the very least, Rome has compromised its claim of an unbroken unity—not only between councils and popes, but within the papal line itself. It can invent theories of “anti-popes” to preserve its claim to valid succession. But even if one were to accept the idea in principle, history has already provided too much contrary evidence. Romantic glances across the Tiber are thwarted by the reality. At the end of the day, this story provides one more reminder that the church that is created by the Word and stands under that Word, with all of its besetting sins and errors, is still the safest place to be in a fallen world and imperfect church.

    Further Reading:

  • C. M. D. Crowder, Unity, Heresy, and Reform, 1378-1460: The Conciliar Response to the Great Schism (New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1977).
  • Oakley, Francis. The Conciliarist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).