1309-1417: Avignon and the Papal Schism


For two centuries before the official launch of the Protestant Reformation, corruption and strife in the papacy prompted calls for reform within the Catholic Church.  Back in the early 14th century, the Pope had fled Rome and set up the offices of the church in Avignon, France.  There, over the next 100 years, a series of Popes created ways to increase religious taxes and fiscal intakes, funding construction of a grand palace of opulence (pictured).  As one Italian poet described Avignon, it is “a receptacle of all that is most wicked and abominable…In this city there is no piety, no reverence or fear of God, no faith or charity, nothing that is holy, just, equitable, or humane.”

Two women, later canonized by the Catholic church, led the calls to repentance.  St. Bridget implored Pope Gregory XI to show humility — “Why in thy Court dost thou suffer unchecked the foulest pride, insatiable avarice, execrable wantonness, and all-devouring simony? … Arise and seek bravely to reform the Church which I have purchased with my blood, and it shall be restored to its former state, though now a brothel is more respected than it.” 

St. Catherine of Siena likewise took time away from her service to the poor to prophesy against Avignon corruption.  She entreated Pope Gregory XI “I long to see you the sort of true gentle shepherd who takes an example from the shepherd Christ, whose place you hold. He laid down his life for his little sheep in spite of our ingratitude.  The hounding, the wrongs, the scorn, the insults of the people he had created and so greatly blessed did not keep him from working out our salvation.  No, as one in love with the Father’s honor and our salvation he ignores his own suffering and conquers our malice with his wisdom and peace and kindness….so I am begging you, I am telling you, my dear babbo, in the name of Christ crucified, to conquer with kindness, with patience, with humility, with gentleness the wrongdoing and pride of your children who have rebelled.”

But the Papal institution didn’t improve, it got worse.  In 1378 two different factions in Western Europe set up competing popes who mutually excommunicated each other.  By 1414 there were three competing Popes.  These schisms and wanton corruption caused the theology surrounding papal infallibility to fracture.  Amidst this turmoil, John Wycliffe began promoting the authority of scripture over the papacy exclaiming “Were there a hundred popes and all the friars turned to cardinals, their opinions in matters of faith should not be accepted except insofar as they are founded on Scripture itself.”

A movement known as “conciliarism” subsequently arose — first, the Council at Constance reunited the Church under a single Pope in 1417.  The movement then aimed to figure out a theological way to establish itself, or the entire body of the Church, as the primary authority over any individual, wayward Pope.  In that it failed.  The Papacy fought back against these challenges to its authority, re-doubling its self-assertions of infallibility.  Meanwhile its grandeur and self-aggrandizement and sins (including mistresses and illegitimate children) continued.  As one historian explains – “The Popes’ ludicrously obvious failings in their pretensions as leaders of the universal Church made a mockery of their defeat of the conciliarists, and did nothing to end continuing criticism of papal primacy.” The theological problem of “how to deal with a Pope who cannot lead the Church as God wishes” would continue to fester.  See Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation.

It was to answer that question that Martin Luther would propose a radical solution – rejecting the authority of the Pope completely.

“Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God…Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise.  God help me! Amen.”

For your day’s artistic entertainment, here is a dramatic movie reenactment (from Luther, 2003) of Martin Luther’s denunciation of papal authority.




  1. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    We talked about priestcraft in this space a few weeks back. Folks, this is what you need to think about when you hear the word “priestcraft.” (Benedict XVI’s Prada loafers are a nice shorthand, though.)

    May we in the LDS Church always be hypervigilant for any signs of this. I don’t think anybody in the Church is getting rich off the tithing of the members–yes, even City Creek is being used to finance the Threefold (is it still fourfold anymore?) Mission of the Church–but we need to make sure that our leaders, at all levels, do not take advantage of their positions for worldly gain.

  2. I still believe the Catholic Church isn’t founded on the teaching of Christ but on the selfishness of a few elite to keep the entire masses in subjection to them using religion as a cover…

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  3. I sincerely love the bit about the three popes. You just can’t make this stuff up. Thanks for this series: I’m loving it so far.

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