Short Catechism of Church History - J. Oechtering

Trials of the Church

During the Decline of the Middle Ages

118. Q. What trials befell the Church during the last centuries of the Middle Ages?

R. 1) The removal of the papal residence from Rome to Avignon, France, ( A.D.1305), which lasted seventy years and was called the Babylonian captivity of the Church.

2) The Great Schism of the West and errors about the rights of the Holy See, arising from it.

3) The heresies of Wycliffe and Huss.

4) Disorders, affecting faith and morals, which resulted from a misguided study of pagan literature and law during the renaissance.

119. Q. How did the removal of the Holy See to Avignon take place?

R. Pope Clement V., formerly archbishop of Bordeaux, remained after his coronation in France, ( A.D. 1305) and took up his residence at Avignon, partly on account of the civil war which distracted Rome and Italy, and partly to settle peaceably unjust demands, made by the French King, Philip the Fair, against the Holy See.

120. Q. Why was this stay of the Holy See at Avignon compared to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews?

R. Because it lasted 70 years and was deplored by the Christian world as an exile of the Holy See from Rome, which had been the hallowed capital and centre of Christendom since the days of St. Peter.

During the dispute between Pope John XXII., at Avignon, and the German Emperor, Louis of Bavaria, who stubbornly trespassed on the rights of the Church, this feeling grew the more pronounced as the nations of Europe became jealous of the influence which France tried to force upon the Holy See for political purposes.

121. Q. How did the exile end?

R. Pope Gregory XI., returned to Rome, yielding to the prayers of the Romans, the desire of the Christian world and especially to the pleading of Catherine of Siena, the great saint of that age.

The Popes who resided at Avignon were learned and saintly men. Clement V. and John XXII. completed the great lawbook of the Church (Code of canon law). Blessed Urban V. died, stretched on the bare floor, strewn with ashes, and holding the crucifix in his hands, while the doors of the palace were thrown open in compliance with his command to let the people see "how a pope dies."

122. Q. What sad event followed the exile of Avignon?

R. The Schism of the West which lasted thirty six years.

123. Q. How did this Schism originate?

R. After Pope Urban VI. had been elected and crowned at Rome ( A.D. 1378), many of the cardinals, dissatisfied with his rule and claiming that the election had been unlawful, seceded and elected another who called himself Clement VII. and went to reside in Avignon. He was French and received recognition from France and some other western countries, whilst the larger portion of Christendom obeyed the legitimate pope: thus the Schism of the West originated.

During the election the Romans had clamored loudly for an Italian pope, because they feared that one of French nationality would not stay in Rome, but reside at Avignon. This disturbance was afterwards alleged by the seceding cardinals as an excuse for their action. After the schism had lasted 30 years, several cardinals, proposing to end it, convened a synod at Pisa, where they declared the successors of Pope Urban and of Clement deposed, and made another election, so that beside the legitimate pope, Gregory XII., two others claimed recognition from the Christian world.

124. Q. What was the result of this Schism?

R. This Schism brought great disorders and abuses into Christendom; it lowered the respect for papal authority, led princes to meddle in Church affairs and caused the erroneous opinion, that general councils have authority over the pope.

This error was forever condemned by the Vatican council which upheld the supremacy of the Holy See, as it was given by Christ to St. Peter, exercised by his successors, and recognized in every century of the Christian era.

125. Q. How was the Schism of the West settled?

R. The Schism was settled at the Council of Constance ( A.D. 1414–1418). Pope Gregory XII., a most humble and holy pontiff, freely resigned in order to restore peace to the Church. The claims of his two opponents were set aside by the council and Pope Martin V. was duly elected.

126. Q. What heresies grew out of the troubles of this time?

R. The heresies of Wycliffe and Huss which were condemned by the Council of Constance.

Wycliffe lived at Oxford, England; Huss, who was a professor at Prague, adopted his errors.

127. Q. What did Wycliffe and Huss teach?

R. 1) They taught that every Christian has a right to explain the Bible for himself and that the Church is invisible, existing only in the hearts of the predestined.

2) They rejected the divine institution of the hierarchy and proclaimed the revolutionary doctrine, that the wrong done by temporal and spiritual rulers deprives them of the right to govern and to own property, and entitles their subjects to judge them and to rebel.

These doctrines were later adopted by Luther and other heretics. Their dangerous character was illustrated by the Lollard mobs in England and the destructive Hussite wars in Bohemia, which were caused by them. They openly proclaimed the so called principle of revolution, which since then has continually disturbed church, state and society.

128. Q. What disorders followed the abuse of ancient pagan literature?

R. Many pagan ideas, undermining Christian faith and morals, spread among the educated classes and caused proud contempt for ecclesiastical authority and scholastic learning, and bitter envy against the religious orders, who taught in the universities of Christendom.

The scholars of ancient pagan literature were called Humanists. While many of them were excellent Christians like Thomas More of England, others like Ulrich von Hutten, Luther's friend, were irreligious and immoral men.

129. Q. What false doctrines were taken by princes from the law of ancient pagan Rome?

R. Two false doctrines were taken by princes from ancient Roman law and became fatal to the liberty of the Church and the people;

1) that the will of the ruler is supreme law,

2) that the ruler is supreme in temporal and spiritual things.

130. Q. What was the tendency of the sad events of this epoch?

R. These sad events tended on the one hand to dispose worldly and evil minded men for the apostasy of the sixteenth century; but on the others to purify and chasten the true children of the Church.

131. Q. How did the Church pass through these trials?

R. Divine Providence guided the Church through these trials, so that—

1) The papacy, even in its sorest distress, remained firm in defending the faith against heresy, schism and schismatic councils.

2) Numerous saints edified Christendom by the fragrance of heroic virtue and perfection.

St. John Nepomucene, a martyr for the seal of confession; St. Francis of Paola, remarkable for his ascetic life and founder of the Hermits of St. Francis; St. Bernardine, who after a youth of angelic chastity entered the Franciscan order and converted innumerable sinners by his apostolic preaching; St. John Capistran, his disciple, who preached a crusade against the Turks and led the Christian army to a glorious victory over a tenfold stronger enemy; St. Nicholas of the Flue, a hermit in Switzerland, who for twenty years took no sustenance except holy communion; St. Catherine of Siena, conspicuous by most exalted holiness and heavenly wisdom, so that her advice was sought by popes, princes and people; St. Frances of Rome who was honored by the visible presence of her guardian angel and many other saints in all walks of life.

NOTE.—This epoch shows, that the Church is always sure of the promised protection of her divine Founder and the guidance of the Holy Ghost, not only in times of violent persecution or against the attacks of heresy, but also in the far greater peril of internal dissensions which during that time struck at the very rock on which Christ built his Church, the Papacy. Even saints like St. Vincent Ferrer were for a time in doubt about the legitimate pope, nations were divided, universities and learned men disputed, but the cloud vanished, the Church emerged from her trials, and the papacy, even in its apparent humiliation, stood clearly forth as the unyielding rock of faith against the false principles and heresies of the age.