Day 238: The Great Pope-Off, 1378!!!

originally published August 25, 2012

I’m about as far away as possible from believing in the Pope as a figure worthy of worship. Not to knock anyone’s faith, but for a disconnected observer, it strikes me that the higher-up Catholic bureaucracy averages somewhere beneath Central American politicians when it comes to quality of character and ethos.

But my utter indifference regarding the papal position won’t keep me from a good story. Today’s episode focuses on the Western Schism, the period in which two, even three active popes competed for legitimacy, or as I like to call it:

The Great Pope-Off, 1378!!!

The roots of the conflict can be found back in 1305, when the conclave found themselves deadlocked. These are the cardinals who elect the new pope – just as mysterious and ritual-oriented as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences who selects the Oscars, and just as susceptible to making rotten choices (I’m looking at you, John XII and Dances With Wolves).

The cardinals finally elected Clement V, a Frenchman, to be the new pope. The Catholic masses breathed a sigh of relief; nobody likes a stalemate. Then Clement V announced that he was going to pass on the whole Rome thing, and set up the official papal crib in Poitiers, France.

There was nothing anyone could do about this. He was the pope; it was like if Dick Clark had wanted to relocate American Bandstand to Boise. No one would argue. He’s the boss. Also, Clement kind of looked like noted comedian and professional therapist Jonathan Katz, which makes him kind of lovable.

Clement was a bit of a renegade-pope, as far as the Catholic church was concerned. The French monarchy had a different term for him: a puppet. From the very day Clement was handed the keys to the papal washroom, the king of France launched a jihad on the Knights Templar. If you haven’t seen or read The Da Vinci Code, the gist is that these guys had a radically different interpretation of how things went down circa the year zero. The Templars were charged with heresy. Also, sodomy, because that charge had some glitz to it.

So how good a pope was Clement? Well, rumor has it while his body lay in state, lightning struck the church and nearly burned his corpse into pork-rind form. I don’t know what the people thought of his reign, but clearly someone wasn’t impressed.

One thing Clement did accomplish was the construction of the modest, humble digs in which he and future popes would dwell. This tiny home was also known as the Papal Palace in Avignon, a fiefdom in what is now France:

Once Clement had shuffled off to pope heaven, King Phillip V of France assembled the papal conclave on his turf. John XXII was sworn in. Like Clement, John was happy with the palace at Avignon. The papal HQ was there to stay.

Forty-four years and five popes later, Gregory XI decided that Rome is where the heart is, so he packed up his goods in his papal tote bags and relocated the holy caravan back to Rome. The church was getting a little too pro-anything-the-French-want for the people, and this restored some legitimacy to the position. After Gregory XI’s death in 1378, a riot broke out in Rome, as the local populace wanted an end to this era of papal corruption by French politics. They wanted a new beginning – an era of papal corruption under Roman government instead.

They got their wish. Meet Pope Urban VI:

No, I’m joking. It was this guy:

Shortly after Urban VI was handed the keys to the Popemobile, it became clear that he wasn’t the ideal pick. He was short-tempered and violent. He used to complain that the people he had ordered to be tortured weren’t screaming loudly enough. The phrase “I’ve made a huge mistake” was uttered by high-ranking cardinals more frequently than by G.O.B. Bluth. Urban VI was not the guy whose pope jersey you’d want to frame and hang in your den beside the autographed Lawrence Taylor ’86 Giants jersey you picked up on eBay.

Many of the cardinals took off for Avignon and elected another pope, Clement VII. For the first time in history, two popes were in charge.

Urban VI was furious; he took out his rage by investigating everyone around him, Jack Bauer-style, to see who was in on this betrayal. The church was split in two, which probably meant nothing to the masses who went about their lives, doing their duties by tending fields, building horse-carts and dying of old age in their thirties. But the Catholic higher-ups were in a mess.

When Urban and Clement died, the schism kept rolling along. Rome wasn’t about to give up home field pope-advantage, so Boniface IX was be-poped in 1389. Over in Avignon, the cardinals who had fled the coop (heh, there’s a pun in there) voted Benedict XIII to take over. When Boniface traded in his earthly body for that mystical jet-ski to heaven in 1404, the Roman cardinals offered to hold off on electing a new pope, as long as Benedict resigned. Maybe things could get back to normal.

No chance. Benedict wasn’t about to pack up his golf clubs and head into retirement. The Romans shrugged it off and elected Innocent VII to take over.

People were adamant about the pope they had chosen to follow. This was partisan politics, taken to religious extremes. Eventually both groups of cardinals got the two popes to agree to a summit, a meeting in Savona to work everything out. When both popes backed off at the last minute, both groups of cardinals ditched their allegiances and elected Alexander V, a new pope.

Now there were three popes. This was spiraling from a religious kafuffle into an episode of Three’s Company.

Finally, noted French theologian and all-around smart cookie Jean Gerson brought the cardinals together at the Council of Constance, and figured out a way to sort out this mess in 1414. First, they talked Alexander’s successor, John XXIII, into resigning. No one wanted a third pope. Next, they talked Gregory XII (who was the new honcho in Rome) into signing his resignation letter, and officially empowering the Council to legitimately select the next pope. As for Benedict XIII over in Avignon, they just ex-communicated his ass.

The Council made Martin V their starting quarterback, the papacy was to stay in Rome, and the schism had reached its end. Sort of. Some regions didn’t recognize the acts of the Council, and two more non-popes (officially called antipopes, which is delightful) were elected by other archbishops who saw Martin as an imposter.

These last acts of rebellion didn’t take, and history officially records the Roman line of popes after Gregory’s return in 1378 to be the legitimate pope-train. Things returned to normal, and the Catholic church could return to doing what it did best back then, namely murdering the unholy fuck out of anybody who didn’t profess their faith and devotion to the church.

These were good and interesting times.

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