The Decline in Catholic Authority in the Fourteenth Century


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For centuries historians have argued about what might have caused the decline in

the fourteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and whether it was related to the Great Western

Schism, or the Black Death and famine. While each of these events were devastating to Europe

at the time, the majority of decline in authority and power of the church and pope lie within the

anomaly of the Great Western Schism. According to much research a divide in power of the

Catholic Church led to two strongly opposing popes claiming legitimacy. The schism began soon

after the death of the Avignon pope, Gregory XI (1305-1377), more specifically 1378. Once an

election was ran for the new pope, the people of Rome demanded they enlist a pope of Italian

heritage. In response to the Roman Catholic community, the College of Cardinals (ranking just

below the priest) gathered to find a pope, but “…they could not agree on a candidate among

themselves and they were subject to what any impartial observer might call ‘inordinate

pressures’” (1) The Roman people threatened to run the Cardinals (mostly Frenchmen) out of the

city if they did not abide. In fear of many threats, the Cardinals elected Bartolomeo Prignani as

Pope Urban VI. Because of the inability to decide, it was not long before the church saw that

Urban VI was anything but justifiably fit for the position of pope. It was not long before the

“…abandonment of Urban VI by the Cardinals, [and] their election of one of their own

members, Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII…” that strongly reinforced the instability

within not only the Papacy, but the clergy and College of Cardinals, and the Catholic Church as

a whole (2). After yet another election of a third pope by the Council of Pisa in 1409 (Boniface

VIII), it was evident to the citizens of Rome that “…no one knew who the rightful pope was…”

(3). During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the Great Western Schism ultimately

paved the way for the deterioration of the Catholic Church and the weakening of the authority of

The first sign of doubt from the citizens of Rome was the residence of Papacy on the Isle

of Avignon in the early fourteenth century. After seventy years under the authority of Pope

Gregory XI, his death came as a relief to many members of the church. Because of the doubt

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spread across much of Europe, and fear of the Cardinals supposed election of yet another

Frenchman, Rome rioted in 1378, demanding a pope from Italy. Their election did result in a

pope from Italy; however, Pope Urban VI proved himself unfit for Papacy—displaying acts of

selfishness, greed, and extravagant living. Since the reign of Papacy on Avignon, “…the Great

Western Schism, and what [it means is] far from over, and we have had more than four centuries

of arguments…” (4). During the last four centuries, something that historians have in fact agreed

upon is that Pope Urban VI has been “…considered, both by the majority of contemporary

chronicles and by most later historians, one of the most arbitrary and, indeed, insane of all

popes” (5). Because of the obvious mistake the Cardinals had made, they decided to withdraw

their election of Pope Urban VI, and bestow it upon Robert of Geneva, making him Pope

Clement VII. Urban VI was not happy about this, and was not ready to give up his authority as

pope; in retaliation to the Cardinals, Pope Urban VI manipulated Queen Johanna to support his

claims that Clement VII was the ‘anti-pope.’ The claim made by Pope Urban VI (who at this

time was no long considered a pope by the church of Rome) raised much doubt to whether

Clement VII was indeed the newly elected pope, and moreover, which one was lying. While

devastating for the Catholic Church, it also caused a great deal of confusion and anti-papacy

among the members of the Roman Catholic Church. With the election Pope Clement VII was the

official beginning of what we now consider the Great Western Schism, causing an obvious

divide in the Catholic Church. Amidst the confusion and anger of the Catholic Church, taxes

were also raised to support the revenue being spent on the Papacy at Avignon, which the

Romans did not want in the first place. The Papacy at Avignon only confirmed to the Catholic

Church the supremacy of the Popes extravagant lifestyles which the city of Rome deemed

When Pope Urban VI first became pope, he threatened the removal of the majority of the

Frenchmen in the College of Cardinals. Upon this claim, the Frenchman left and were replaced

with Italian members. Because of this claim, when the Frenchmen returned, they had booted

Urban from his election and thus he was no longer the pope. Each pope elected after Pope Urban

VI “…maintained his own legitimacy and anathematized his rival.” (6). Because of the

anathematization, the people of Rome had even further doubts of both Pope Urban the VI and

Pope Clement VII; only making matters worse, the last of the Avignon popes was elected—Pope

Boniface VIII. Unable to coerce either pope into wither yielding his claim, using their alliances

to overpower the other, or even having a council of the church decide on what to do, “…thirty

years passed before an actual council materialized” (7) Because of this very confusing time, by

the fifteenth century “…the via concilii (voting by a church council) had increasingly come to

seem the only viable option left to heal the schism” (8). This council did not solve the problem

of the schism but in fact elected another pope in 1407. Because of this indecisiveness, the

council was never officially recognized, and Martin V was never viewed as the one true pope.

During this time of stagnation in deciding who was the pope, the financial abuse of the Avignon

Papacy was beginning to have more and more impact on the people of Rome, and this led to

what is now considered one of the most devastating schisms in Catholic history.

During the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries there were four popes elected, and

yet none of them were accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. Because of the indecisiveness

and the lack of cohesion in elections, the sacred College of Cardinals, while hungry for the

power they held, gave way to many problems in the fifteenth century; the Great Western Schism

brought the stability of the Catholic Church crumbling to the ground and led to a very much

needed reformation of power in the fifteenth century. Before Boniface, Clement, or Urban,

there was stability within the Catholic Church; stability that allowed one pope to reign for

nearly 70 years even though the church was not happy of the Avignon residence. It is evident

to researchers and students alike that the Great Schism of the West was indeed one of the most

devastating and toxic eras for the Roman Catholic Church.


Works Cited

For centuries historians have argued about what might have caused the decline in

the fourteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and whether it was related to the Great Western

Schism, or the Black Death and famine. While each of these events were devastating to Europe

at the time, the majority of decline in authority and power of the church and pope lie within the

anomaly of the Great Western Schism. According to much research a divide in power of the

Catholic Church led to two strongly opposing popes claiming legitimacy. The schism began soon

after the death of the Avignon pope, Gregory XI (1305-1377), more specifically 1378. Once an

election was ran for the new pope, the people of Rome demanded they enlist a pope of Italian

heritage. In response to the Roman Catholic community, the College of Cardinals (ranking just

below the priest) gathered to find a pope, but “…they could not agree on a candidate among

themselves and they were subject to what any impartial observer might call ‘inordinate

pressures’” (1) The Roman people threatened to run the Cardinals (mostly Frenchmen) out of the

city if they did not abide. In fear of many threats, the Cardinals elected Bartolomeo Prignani as

Pope Urban VI. Because of the inability to decide, it was not long before the church saw that

Urban VI was anything but justifiably fit for the position of pope. It was not long before the

“…abandonment of Urban VI by the Cardinals, [and] their election of one of their own

members, Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII…” that strongly reinforced the instability

within not only the Papacy, but the clergy and College of Cardinals, and the Catholic Church as

a whole (2). After yet another election of a third pope by the Council of Pisa in 1409 (Boniface

VIII), it was evident to the citizens of Rome that “…no one knew who the rightful pope was…”

(3). During the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the Great Western Schism ultimately

paved the way for the deterioration of the Catholic Church and the weakening of the authority of

The first sign of doubt from the citizens of Rome was the residence of Papacy on the Isle

of Avignon in the early fourteenth century. After seventy years under the authority of Pope

Gregory XI, his death came as a relief to many members of the church. Because of the doubt

spread across much of Europe, and fear of the Cardinals supposed election of yet another

Frenchman, Rome rioted in 1378, demanding a pope from Italy. Their election did result in a

pope from Italy; however, Pope Urban VI proved himself unfit for Papacy—displaying acts of

selfishness, greed, and extravagant living. Since the reign of Papacy on Avignon, “…the Great

Western Schism, and what [it means is] far from over, and we have had more than four centuries

of arguments…” (4). During the last four centuries, something that historians have in fact agreed

upon is that Pope Urban VI has been “…considered, both by the majority of contemporary

chronicles and by most later historians, one of the most arbitrary and, indeed, insane of all

popes” (5). Because of the obvious mistake the Cardinals had made, they decided to withdraw

their election of Pope Urban VI, and bestow it upon Robert of Geneva, making him Pope

Clement VII. Urban VI was not happy about this, and was not ready to give up his authority as

pope; in retaliation to the Cardinals, Pope Urban VI manipulated Queen Johanna to support his

claims that Clement VII was the ‘anti-pope.’ The claim made by Pope Urban VI (who at this

time was no long considered a pope by the church of Rome) raised much doubt to whether

Clement VII was indeed the newly elected pope, and moreover, which one was lying. While

devastating for the Catholic Church, it also caused a great deal of confusion and anti-papacy

among the members of the Roman Catholic Church. With the election Pope Clement VII was the

official beginning of what we now consider the Great Western Schism, causing an obvious

divide in the Catholic Church. Amidst the confusion and anger of the Catholic Church, taxes

were also raised to support the revenue being spent on the Papacy at Avignon, which the

Romans did not want in the first place. The Papacy at Avignon only confirmed to the Catholic

Church the supremacy of the Popes extravagant lifestyles which the city of Rome deemed

When Pope Urban VI first became pope, he threatened the removal of the majority of the

Frenchmen in the College of Cardinals. Upon this claim, the Frenchman left and were replaced

with Italian members. Because of this claim, when the Frenchmen returned, they had booted

Urban from his election and thus he was no longer the pope. Each pope elected after Pope Urban

VI “…maintained his own legitimacy and anathematized his rival.” (6). Because of the

anathematization, the people of Rome had even further doubts of both Pope Urban the VI and

Pope Clement VII; only making matters worse, the last of the Avignon popes was elected—Pope

Boniface VIII. Unable to coerce either pope into wither yielding his claim, using their alliances

to overpower the other, or even having a council of the church decide on what to do, “…thirty

years passed before an actual council materialized” (7) Because of this very confusing time, by

the fifteenth century “…the via concilii (voting by a church council) had increasingly come to

seem the only viable option left to heal the schism” (8). This council did not solve the problem

of the schism but in fact elected another pope in 1407. Because of this indecisiveness, the

council was never officially recognized, and Martin V was never viewed as the one true pope.

During this time of stagnation in deciding who was the pope, the financial abuse of the Avignon

Papacy was beginning to have more and more impact on the people of Rome, and this led to

what is now considered one of the most devastating schisms in Catholic history.

During the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries there were four popes elected, and

yet none of them were accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. Because of the indecisiveness

and the lack of cohesion in elections, the sacred College of Cardinals, while hungry for the

power they held, gave way to many problems in the fifteenth century; the Great Western Schism

brought the stability of the Catholic Church crumbling to the ground and led to a very much

needed reformation of power in the fifteenth century. Before Boniface, Clement, or Urban,

there was stability within the Catholic Church; stability that allowed one pope to reign for

nearly 70 years even though the church was not happy of the Avignon residence. It is evident

to researchers and students alike that the Great Schism of the West was indeed one of the most

devastating and toxic eras for the Roman Catholic Church.


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