The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has, to put it mildly, come as a surprise to many across the world. It has also turned eyes back to the last pope to resign almost 600 years ago: Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415. The circumstances of Pope Benedict’s resignation have been cited as health issues, but Gregory’s resignation was a bit… messier.1 To understand why he resigned and the circumstances regarding his departure, we must first delve back into understanding what the Papacy used to be.
The Vatican as we know it in the 21st century is vastly different from its 15th century relative. First and foremost, the Papacy was a secular as well as religious body. It frequently wrestled with the Holy Roman Empire for secular domination of Christendom’s forces. It commanded armies and led Crusades. Pope Julius II, who reigned a century after Gregory XII, has been dubbed the warrior pope because he led the Papal armies on the battlefield.2 The Papacy had real political clout; it did much more than simply directing the spiritual positions of the Catholic Church as it does today.
And with this in mind we enter the world of the 1300’s. In 1305, after much deliberation, the Conclave3 selected a French pope, Clement V. Clement, so fond of his French heritage, declined to move to Rome and instead decided to set up his Papal court in the French city of Avignon.4 Referred to by many as the “Babylonian Captivity,” the Papacy spent the next 67 years in Avignon rather than Rome, seeing seven (French) [opes reign and die on French soil. As to be expected, the popes of Avignon became steadily more corrupt and more connected to the French crown, much to the chagrin of the rest of the continent. Hence, Pope Gregory XI decided to end his stay in Avignon and returned the Papacy to its seat in Rome during the winter of 1377.5
Pope Gregory XI died soon after, and the Romans clamored for the Conclave to elect a Italian pope. It had been eight popes since the last Italian—a rather long period of time for the Papacy to be vacant an Italian seat. So came about the appointment of Pope Urban VI in 1388. The cardinals soon began to regret their decision, for Urban VI was incompetent, to say the least.6 He attempted too many reforms for the Conclave’s liking, and was prone to violent outbursts due to his uncontrollable temper. Attempting to rectify the situation, the majority of the Conclave fled Rome for the Italian city of Anagni and elected a new pope: Pope Clement VII. Clement, knowing it was not safe to stay in Italy, packed his bags and set up court back in the old Papal city of Avignon, France.7
This was not the first time two claimants to the papacy had shown up. Popes and antipopes8 had been vying for the throne ever since the 5th century. However, this was the first time that two popes had been elected by the same Conclave. This posed an issue for Christendom: which Pope was legitimate? Both had the same claim to power for they were both given power by the same body. No theological issues characterized this Western Schism9; rather, it was a purely political split. In fact, the two popes split Europe right in half. The French, Spanish, Neapolitans, and Scots supported Clement VII of Avignon, whilst the English, Venetians, Germans (the Holy Roman Empire at the time), and Nordic countries backed Urban VI of Rome. The split even caused a few conflicts, mostly centered in the Iberian Peninsula between the Avignon-supporting Spaniards and the Roman-loving English and Portuguese.10
The split continued long after the deaths of each initial claimant; Pope Boniface IX was coronated in 1389 in Rome whilst the Avignon antipope Benedict XIII rose to power in 1394. The problem posed a rather tricky one for Church intellectuals to solve. Canon law stated that only a pope can call council to solve a Church crisis of claimants, but neither pope was willing to do so. Eventually, a few ecclesiastical lawyers found their way around the problem by claiming that the Church could flaunt their own laws when the well-being of the Church itself was at stake, and called a council at Pisa in 1409. Comically, the council went horribly wrong and they somehow ended up electing another antipope by the name of Pope Alexander V. He died a year later, and John XXIII rose to take his place.11
By this time in 1410, there were now three claimants to the papal seat. Pope Benedict XIII reigned in Avignon, Gregory XII in Rome, and John XXIII in Pisa. Each had their own supporters, their own court, and made their own theological decisions. Needless to say, the Catholic Church was in a state of utter disarray.
Finally, the Catholic Church was able to organize another council that miraculously solved the crisis rather than appointing another antipope. The Council of Constance convened in 1414 and had a number of sweeping proclamations. It first secured the resignations of the Pisa pope, John XXIII, and the Roman pope, Gregory XII. Gregory XII has the distinction of being the most modern pope to resign12, and is the reason why this post is being written at all. The council failed to get the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, to resign, so they excommunicated13 him instead. He soon fell into irrelevance with only the Kingdom of Aragon in Spain still supporting him. With the three popes essentially eliminated, the Council of Constance then appointed a new pope to take up the reigns of the Church and restore it to unity. This pope, Pope Martin V, was almost universally supported by the secular leaders of Europe, tired of the decades of infighting the schism had caused.14
The Council of Constance ended the Western Schism in a very subtle yet clever way. By getting rid of all three popes and appointing a single new leader, they never legitimized any of the three claimants. This avoided insulting any of the backers of any one of the three, and helped to keep church unity. Even today, the “official popes” of the Western Schism are unclear. The Catholic Church has never made a clear pronouncement on the issue, so the line of succession is still in question.
The Western Schism, and indeed the Avignon Papacy, are generally agreed to be massive contributing factors to the dissatisfaction with the Church leading to the Protestant Reformation some centuries later. The Southern games of the Italians and French disturbed the Germans and northern countries, who were disillusioned with the corrupt nature of the Church after the two events.15 The Western Schism can be seen as the beginning of the end of the Catholic Church’s absolute dominance over medieval Europe. So long as Pope Benedict XVI has no ambitions of founding his own church or challenging his successor as an antipope, it’s guaranteed that his resignation will be void of the controversy and messiness that defined Gregory XII abdication from power.