The Great Western Schism

Pope Urban VI (1378 – 1389)

There are many traditional Catholics who, in an effort to find a precedent to our current problem in the Church, look to the Great Western Schism as this precedent. The Great Western Schism was a split among Catholics which took place from 1378 to 1417. It was caused by the election of two different popes simultaneously.

Then a third was added. Pope Clement V decided, upon his election to the papacy in 1305, to not take up residence in turbulent Rome, but instead to reside at a papal-owned enclave in southern France known as Avignon. This was nothing new for the popes. For many centuries Rome often became uninhabitable for them because of warring factions within Rome who wanted their own candidates on the throne. There was also an anti-papal republican faction in Rome which wanted to see the return of republican Rome and the overthrow of the papal monarchy. So in order to protect the safety of their own persons, and merely to have some peace and quiet, popes in the Middle Ages commonly took refuge in France.

The popes stayed in Avignon from 1305 to 1370. They knew, however, that to remain there was far from ideal, since their residing in France injured the unity of the Church inasmuch as the pope appeared to be the altar boy of the French monarch.

Pope Urban V (1352-1370) returned to Rome. He made every effort to stay in Rome, but eventually had to leave owing to the same old problems. He went back to Avignon, against the advice of St. Catherine of Siena. She predicted his swift death in the event of his return to Avignon, and, sure enough, he was dead within a few months.

His successor, Pope Gregory XI was elected in Avignon. He too returned to Rome and remained there. He died in 1378 in Rome. His successor, Pope Urban VI was elected in Rome in 1378 in a perfectly legal election. There was strong sentiment in Rome, it is true, that a Roman or an Italian, at least, be elected, and this sentiment was manifested by large crowds at the time of the conclave. Nonetheless, in hindsight we can see, from historical research, that the cardinals who elected Urban VI did so in perfect liberty, and all did obeisance to him and participated in his coronation. At the time of the election, not one of the cardinals expressed doubt concerning its validity. However, I emphasize that we know this in hindsight.

Urban VI, although by reputation up to that time a very moderate and balanced person, became overbearing, obnoxious, cruel, and tyrannical in his administration of the Church. He also wanted to reform the habits of the cardinals who had fallen into a lax way of life during their sojourn at Avignon.

So some of the cardinals, mostly French, decided that Urban had to go. Consequently about five months after the election of Urban VI, these cardinals declared that they had been under pressure from the Roman mob to elect a Roman or an Italian, and consequently the conclave was invalid. They then proceeded to elect a new pope, a cardinal by the name of Robert of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII. He resided in Avignon together with the disaffected cardinals. Thus the schism began.

Antipope Clement VII

France, Spain, the Kingdom of Naples, and Scotland adhered to the Avignon popes. The rest of the Catholic world adhered to the Roman pope, with a few minor exceptions.

The claim of the Avignon cardinals, that pressure had been put on them by the Roman mob, was at the time very believable. For since the tenth century, that is, for more than three hundred years, the Roman mob had been rebellious and unruly, and many times would elect their own antipope
if the true pope did not please them. Many times the popes had to abandon Rome for their own personal safety and/or for the peaceful administration of the Church.

All during the schism, both sides tried what they could in order to solve the problem. It was generally agreed that cession would be the best solution, that is, that both claimants resign, and that all the cardinals come together and elect a new pope. Since this solution pleased neither of the claimants, a group of cardinals met in Pisa, where they elected yet a third pope, in the hope that the other two would resign. He took the name of John XXIII. [1] But neither the Avignon pope nor the Roman pope ceded to John XXIII. Consequently the problem worsened.

It was resolved, finally, at a general council of the Church at Constance, in what is now Germany. There Martin V was elected in 1417, and all the other claimants resigned in favor of him. The schism was over.

No analogy with the present situation. Many traditional Catholics, desperate to understand the present crisis in the Church, and at the same time desperate to avoid sedevacantism (for what reason I will never know), look to this Great Western Schism for principles in dealing with the Modernist “popes.” They argue that there was confusion and doubt as to who was pope, and therefore no one was truly schismatic. So, they continue, there is confusion and doubt about the Vatican II popes, and it is therefore possible to go either way — namely to hold that he is the pope or not the pope — without committing schism. Then they argue, finally, that since it is an open question, one is free to attend an una cum Mass or a non una cum Mass; it does not matter. I will now address this false reasoning.

While it is true that there was confusion and doubt about who was the true pope in the Great Western Schism, there is objectively no confusion or doubt about the Vatican II popes. I have always maintained that the central question concerning Vatican II and its reforms is this: Are they continuity or rupture? Stated another way: Is post-Vatican II Catholicism substantially the same as pre-Vatican II Catholicism? All of the principles of what we think and do in this current problem of Vatican II derive from the answer to this question.

If someone is rejecting the reforms of Vatican II by attending unauthorized traditional Latin Masses (e.g., SSPX), it can be reasonably assumed that he thinks that Vatican II is a substantial rupture from pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Otherwise he would stay in his parish.

If Vatican II is substantial rupture, it is impossible that it proceed from the authority of the Church.

If Vatican II is substantial rupture, it is impossible that it proceed from the authority of the Church, since in such a case it would be necessary to conclude that the Church has defected from its substance, its essence, as communicated to it by Christ. But this is heresy. Consequently, the faith requires that we conclude that the Vatican II popes are necessarily and without any doubt false popes.

This is objectively true. It is possible that many persons, through ignorance, cannot figure this out, and therefore remain in doubt about the papacy of the Vatican II popes. But this doubt is only subjective and anecdotal, since the logic is as clear as crystal.

In the great Western Schism, the problem was one of election, and not one of faith. The reason why we avoid the Novus Ordo Mass and the New Religion in general is not because we have doubts about the election of the Vatican II “popes.” It is because they are imposing upon us a new and false religion which is not the Catholic religion. It is rupture from the past. It is therefore false, because the past is true. This is a critical difference between the Modernist crisis and that of the Great Western Schism. For any of the popes who were elected in the Great Western Schism, whether of Rome, Avignon, or Pisa, would have made great popes.

There was no question of their orthodoxy, but merely of their election. They imposed no new religion. This is a critical difference, because there was no intrinsic impossibility that any one of them be pope. In the Modernist crisis, there is an intrinsic impossibility that any one of them be pope, since to admit them as true popes is to destroy the Church’s indefectibility.

For it means that the Church, in promulgating a new and false religion, has gone off the rails, has defected, and that the promises of Christ to be with the Church all days even to the consummation of the world are false. Since this is contrary to faith, we are bound by faith to draw the conclusion that the Modernist popes cannot be true popes.

Ignorance excuses, but it does not justify. The Great Western Schism has always been called by historians the “schism without schismatics.” Why? Because everyone involved in it wanted to remain Catholic and subject to the true pope. Because of lack of information at the time, it was nearly impossible for the average person to know who was the true pope. But obviously in reality there was only one true pope, and we know now that it was Urban VI, the Roman pope. But because this ignorance of who was the true pope was through no fault of those who followed the false ones, for example Saint Vincent Ferrer, they are not guilty of the sin or crime of schism. But this innocence does not change the reality that in fact those who adhered to the false popes were objectively in schism. In other words, they were excused from schism through their ignorance, but objectively they subjected themselves to a false pope and rejected the true one, which is schism. Both the Roman pope and the Avignon pope excommunicated each other and his followers. They did so because the pope is the principle of unity of the Roman Catholic Church.

To me it is very difficult to see how traditional Catholics — those attending unauthorized traditional Masses — can claim ignorance about who is and who is not a true pope. While at the beginning of the Modernist crisis in the 1960’s, when Catholics knew little of the full import and direction of the reforms, ignorance was understandable, it cannot be claimed today. For the very fact that a Catholic abandons his local parish, and therefore obedience to his local “bishop” and the “pope,” he is professing the fact that these men are imposing a false religion. If they were not imposing a false religion, these Catholics would remain in their parishes.

Those who attend SSPX Masses are probably excused from the sin of schism because their priests have taught them the false and pernicious doctrine of recognize and resist, namely that it is in accordance with Catholic Faith and
practice to recognize someone as the Vicar of Christ but at the same time to resist his universal laws and reject his universally promulgated doctrines, because they are contrary to faith and morals. The SSPX priests operate on this principle, deceiving themselves and their people that their position is Catholic, when in fact it is objectively schismatic. Recognition of a pope as pope is not sufficient. Submission to his laws is also necessarily required, as Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XI pointed out. A systematic and habitual disobedience to the Roman Pontiff is schismatic.

No analogy exists in Church history for what we are now living through. Never in the history of the Church has a general council taught condemned doctrines (e.g., religious liberty, ecumenism). Never in the history of the Church have we seen abominable acts against the First Commandment committed by popes in the name of ecumenism. Never have we seen the destruction of the sacred liturgy by a protestantized Lord’s Supper service known as the New Mass, and by the numerous sacrilegious and blasphemous aberrations of the liturgy which have taken place since Vatican II.

Never have we seen popes officially teaching heresy, for example, that God sometimes wants you to commit adultery in order to hold the family together. (Amoris lætitia) The list could go on and on.

You cannot go “either way” about the papacy of the Vatican II “popes,” just as you cannot go either way on whether Vatican II and its reforms are Catholic or not.

We have seen that the principle that the Vatican II reforms are not Catholic necessarily and without any doubt and by faith requires the conclusion that the Vatican II “popes” are not true popes. The converse is also true: If they are true popes, then the Vatican II reforms must be Catholic, and it would be a sin to reject them, and worse, no less than schism to set up a worldwide apostolate against the commands of the reigning pope.

Our salvation depends on our remaining Catholics. We remain Catholics by professing the true faith, and by remaining submissive and obedient to the Roman Pontiff, and to the hierarchy which is subject to him. Therefore the identity of the Roman Pontiff cannot be dismissed as a doubtful bagatelle, but is something which is absolutely necessary to settle in our minds. We must also act in accordance with that decision.

[1] Because the Church never was willing to pronounce on the question of who was the rightful pope, no pope after the Great Western Schism took the name of John, since the obvious question would be: Is he John XXIII or XXIV? But Angelo Roncalli, a Modernist Church History professor at Bergamo, in northern Italy, decided to settle the question once and for all by
taking the name of John XXIII. Perhaps the next true pope should take the name of John XXIII, and settle more than one question once and for all.