History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Decline of the Papal Power

Boniface VIII

Though little more than seventy years had elapsed between the death of Innocent III. (1216) and the accession of Boniface VIII. (1294–1303), yet in that short period a great change had come over the attitude of Europe towards the Holy See. The long-drawn-out struggle between the Papacy and the empire seemed to have closed with a complete victory for the Popes, but it was a victory that was bought dearly. The downfall of the imperial power made it necessary for the Popes to look elsewhere for a protector, and as the saintly Louis IX. of France had proved his devotion to the cause of religion by his life and his policy, they turned instinctively for protection to France, and France began to exercise an enormous influence in Italy and in the councils of the Church.

But the overthrow of the empire did more. It opened the way for the rise of separate nations and tended to increase national jealousies and divisions. As the nations grew stronger, their rulers resented the interference of the Popes as a check upon their own power, and thus, while the Popes soon began to find that France was more of a dictator than a protector, the other nations of Europe—many of them hostile to France—came to regard the Pope as the ally of France and the Papacy as little else than a French institution. In this way the world was prepared for the unfortunate schism which divided the Church into hostile camps for forty years.

But Boniface VIII., regardless of the change in the world, resolved to maintain the temporal power of the Pope at the same high level which it had reached in the days of Innocent III. He soon found himself in conflict with Philip the Fair of France, who was determined to be an absolute ruler in his own dominions, and who had for advisers two ministers on whom he could rely in any struggle with the Pope. Philip required money for his wars with England, and levied heavy taxes upon ecclesiastical property. Boniface VIII. objected to this, and prohibited payment of such taxes under threat of excommunication. Gradually a quarrel developed; Philip strengthened himself against the Pope by alleging that Boniface wished to make himself feudal lord of France, and at last in order to prevent misunderstandings the Pope published the famous Bull, Unam Sanctam, which defined the relations between the spiritual and temporal powers. Before the dispute was settled Boniface VIII, died (1303) and was succeeded by Benedict XI. who lived only a short time.

The Residence of the Popes at Avignon

The majority of the cardinals who entered the conclave on the death of Benedict XI. were Frenchmen, anxious for a reconciliation with France. They elected the archbishop of Bordeaux who took the name of Clement V. (1305). He refused to come to Rome for consecration, preferring that this ceremony should take place at Lyons, and settled finally at Avignon, a city in the south of France placed at his disposal by the king. From 1309 till 1376, with one short interruption, the Popes continued to live at Avignon.

It is easy enough to understand why the Popes of this time were not anxious to come to Rome. The people of the capital were often at war with their predecessors who had been obliged more than once to flee from the city, and besides, the Roman climate was by no means inviting. If these things were true in the case of Italians they were still more true in the case of French Popes and French cardinals who naturally preferred to live in their own country amongst their own countrymen. But, nevertheless, the papal residence at Avignon was disastrous to the influence of the Holy See and most unfortunate for the Church. The Pope must be the head of the whole Church and the common Father of the Christian world, and the Papacy must maintain itself as an international institution but when the Holy See was transferred from the banks of the Tiber to the banks of the Rhone, when the Popes and their principal advisers were Frenchmen, surrounded by French soldiers and dependent more or less on the king of France, the people began to regard the Papacy as a French institution and the Pope as chaplain to the king of France. The results of the papal captivity at Avignon furnish the best argument for the necessity of maintaining the independence of the Holy See and the best justification of the attitude adopted by the Papacy towards Italy since the capture of Rome in 1870.

Again, the withdrawal of the Popes from Rome deprived the people of Rome of their principal source of revenue and employment, and led to a rebellion which was suppressed only after a long and expensive war which left behind it bitter memories, while the necessity of building palaces for the Pope and the cardinals and offices for the congregations and officials necessitated great expenditure, and made it necessary for the Popes to introduce new methods of taxation. Clergy and people alike objected strongly to these new methods, and quite apart from these objections, some of the means employed, as, for instance, the reservation of so many appointments to the Holy See and the permission granted to individuals to hold several benefices at the same time, were likely to prove harmful to religion. Urban V. (136270) left Avignon for Rome, but on account of the ruin of the papal buildings and the hostility of the people he returned to die at Avignon. On the accession of Gregory XI. (1370–78) he determined to bring back the Papacy to Rome. He arrived at Rome in January, 1377, and died the following year, leaving it to his successor to meet the dreadful storm which then threatened the Church.

The Great Western Schism

When the conclave assembled at the Vatican the Roman mob surrounded the hall, clamouring for the election of a Roman or an Italian, and threatening death to the cardinals unless they yielded to this demand. The cardinals were practically unanimous in electing the archbishop of Bari, but before the new Pope could be installed formally, the mob broke into the conclave hall and the cardinals were obliged to seek safety in flight. The majority of them returned next day and confirmed their selection, while practically all attended the coronation of the new Pope, who took the name of Urban VI. (1378–89).

Unfortunately, Urban VI. was not as prudent as he was zealous, and his harsh methods in dealing with the cardinals led many of them to complain and to question the validity of his election, on the ground that the electors were not free owing to the terrorism of the Roman mob. With one exception they left Rome and took up their residence at Anagni where they held another election, and this time they cast their votes for Robert of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII. (1378–94). The schism was now consummated, and the Christian world witnessed the sad spectacle of two Popes, each claiming to be the successor of St. Peter.

Though in modem times very little doubt is entertained that Urban VI. was the lawful Pope, yet the case was not so clear to those who were engaged in the struggle. Both parties found many honest supporters. France declared strongly in favour of Clement VII. and was supported by Scotland and Spain, while the rest of the Church, including the greater part of Germany, Italy, Portugal, England and Ireland remained true to Urban. France at first was determined to force Clement VII. on the Church, but the French soon grew tired of the hopeless struggle, and especially after the death of Clement VII. and the election of the Spaniard, Benedict XIII. (1394), France took the lead in attempting to bring about a reunion. When it was seen that there was no hope of the rival claimants settling their disputes themselves, it was determined to appeal to a general council which was convoked by the cardinals of both Popes to meet at Pisa in 1409.

The council met at Pisa, but on account of the opposition of both Gregory XII. and Benedict XIII., many of the countries refused to send representatives or to promise obedience to the decision of the council. Both claimants were summoned to appear, and as they did not answer to the summons they were deposed, and Alexander V. was elected Pope. Instead of restoring peace to the Church the council of Pisa only helped to increase the confusion, for there were now three claimants for the Papacy and the Church was divided between them.

At last the emperor Sigismund induced John XXIII., the successor of Alexander V., to convoke a general council at Constance (1414). To this council nearly every country in Europe sent representatives. The general feeling amongst those who assembled at Constance was that the three claimants should resign. In order to counterbalance the votes of the great number of bishops present from Italy, who were supposed to be on the side of John XXIII., it was determined that the doctors of the universities and the representatives of the princes should have the right of voting, and, furthermore, that the voting should first be by nations. Four distinct nations were recognised from the beginning, namely, Italy, France, Germany and England, to which was added later on the Spanish nation. John XXIII,, fearing that the council would go against him, fled from Constance, and it was thought that this flight would destroy the council. But instead, it served only to increase the feeling of bitterness against the would-be Popes, and strengthened the hands of those who maintained that a general council was in all circumstances superior to a Pope. Decrees embodying this opinion were passed, but as the cardinals protested against them at the time, and as they never received the confirmation of the Pope, they cannot be regarded as having any force.

John XXIII. was deposed by the council, and accepted its decision. Gregory XII. offered to resign on condition that his legates should be allowed to reconvoke the council, an offer which was accepted. Notwithstanding the efforts of the emperor, Sigismund, Benedict XIII. refused to give way, but he was deserted by the great body of his followers and was deposed. The council, having got rid of the various claimants, proceeded to the election of a new Pope, and the result of the conclave was the appointment of Cardinal Colonna, who took the title of Martin V. (1417–31). Thus at last the schism was ended and peace was restored to the Church.

The Failure of the Movement for Reform

The next important work that should have occupied the attention of the Council of Constance was the question of reform, but the fear that the discussions to which reform would necessarily give rise might lead to a new schism, determined the council to postpone this portion of the programme and to allow the Pope to negotiate agreements with the various rulers. At the same time, influenced largely by those who wished to set up a general council as the ultimate court of appeal in the Church, the Fathers arranged that a general council should be convoked at certain fixed intervals.

In accordance with this decree a council was convoked at Pavia in 1423 which was transferred to Sienna owing to the prevalence of the plague, but as very few bishops attended, the papal legates dissolved the assembly (1424). Seven years later, as had been agreed at Constance, another general council was summoned to meet at Basle (1431). Cardinal Julian Caesarini was sent to preside at Basle, but as very few bishops attended, he proceeded to Bohemia to bring about a reconciliation of the Hussites with the Church. On his return, the numbers having increased, he determined to proceed with the work (Dec., 1431). But the Pope, having learned that the attendance was very small, and having been informed that it was the intention of the council to open for discussion with the Hussites questions which had been defined already by the Church, issued a decree dissolving the council (1431). The assembly, roused by this decision of the Pope, refused to accept it, and renewed the decrees that had been passed at Constance regarding the superiority of a general council over a Pope. It declared, furthermore, that the council of Basle being an ecumenical council, held its authority directly from God and could not be dissolved or prorogued by any person without its own consent. Owing to the general desire for reform, the extreme members of the council, most of whom were not bishops, found great support in France and Germany.

The Pope, yielding to the representations of the emperor, consented (1433) that the council should continue its work, on condition, however, that the decrees against the Holy See should be withdrawn and that the papal legates should be allowed to preside at the sessions. This concession only strengthened the enemies of the Papacy who neglected no opportunity of attacking the rights of the Holy See. Fortunately, delegates from the Greek empire arrived in Europe to seek a reunion with the Church. They wished that a council should be held in some place at which their representatives could conveniently attend. The great body of the bishops and moderate men at Basle passed a decree transferring the council to Ferrara (1437). But the extremists refused to agree to this decision, and growing more reckless, they proceeded to the election of an anti-pope, who took the name of Felix V. (1440). These violent measures only served to alienate those who were inclined at first to support them, and in the end the schismatics of Basle finding themselves deserted dissolved the assembly, and Felix V. was induced to submit to the Pope (1449).

The combined council, representative of both Latins and Greeks, met first at Ferrara (1438) and then at Florence (1439–42). It was attended by the Emperor, John Palaeologus, and most of the leading ecclesiastics of the east, and was presided over in person by Eugene IV. Both parties, having settled their differences regarding Purgatory and the addition of Filioque  to the Creed, turned their attention to the position of the Pope, and the result of their discussion was the solemn decree by which both acknowledged that " the Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter, the true vicar of Jesus Christ, the head of the entire Church and the father and teacher of all Christians, that on him, in the person of St. Peter, was conferred by Christ the power of ruling and governing the Church, a fact which is set forth in the decrees of the ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons." Such a solemn recognition of papal supremacy by all parts of the Christian world, at a time when so many strange theories were in the air and when Europe was on the verge of the great religious rebellion that was to separate so many countries from the centre of unity, was of the greatest importance, and must have been designed specially by Providence.

But the unfortunate divisions to which the Council of Basle gave rise did immense injury to the cause of reform. They prevented the Pope from having recourse to the only means by which a proper scheme of reform could have been formulated or carried through, namely, a general council, lest such an assembly, following the example of Basle, might lead to a new schism in the Church. Besides, it must be admitted that the Popes from Sixtus IV. (1471–84) to Leo X. (1513–21) were not inclined to undertake such a heavy work. With one exception they were not entirely unworthy of their high position, but they were too much mixed up with Italian politics and the Renaissance movement, and partook too largely of the careless and indifferent spirit of their age, to throw themselves heart and soul into the movement for reform. The zealous and holy Dominican, Savonarola, who, unlike Luther and his followers, was truly loyal to the Church, attempted to arouse Alexander VI. to a proper sense of duty, but his methods were too violent, and resulted only in his own downfall.

Julius II. (1503–13), alarmed by the action of the king of France, who summoned an ecclesiastical assembly to meet at Pisa, convoked a general council at Rome (1512). This council, known as the Fifth Lateran Council, continued its work under Julius II. and his successor, Leo X., but the jealousies between the countries of Europe and the strange ignorance shown by the responsible authorities of the true state of affairs, prevented the council from doing anything to put an end to the abuses of which every one complained. Earnest ecclesiastics watched the labours of the council with anxiety, and when they saw that it was closed without having undertaken serious measures of reform, they realised that it was only through tribulation and suffering that the Church could be renewed. Nor was it long till their predictions were fulfilled. The last session of the council was held in March, 1517, and in November of the same year Luther opened his campaign at Wittenberg.