EWTN Catholic Q&A
The Great Western Schism
Question from Max Fischer on 05-07-2003:

How did the great schism of the West come about? By this I mean the schism during which there were two or three claimants to the papal throne at once. What events led to its eventual end?

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 05-07-2003:

The so-called Great Western Schism, lasting from 1378-1417, was a period of division in the Church that began owing to the disputed election of Pope Urban VI in 1378. There were many reasons for the schism to erupt, but the chief one is usually ascribed to the effort of the French cardinals to retain the strong French influence over the papacy that had characterized parts of the 14th century. French cardinals rejected the election of the Italian Bartolomeo Prignano and instead chose Robert of Geneva who took the name of Clement VII and is counted among the antipopes.

There followed various efforts to heal the schism, but these failed and, ultimately, there were three claimants to the papacy: the legitimate pope, Gregory XII and two antipopes, Benedict XIII and Alexander V. Alexander was succeeded as antipope by John XXIII (not, in any way to be confused with the legitimate pope and blessed of the 20th century). To find some resolution to the crisis, Emperor Sigismund and many Church leaders proposed a general council. The result was the Council of Constance, 1414-1417.After long deliberations, the antipopes John and Benedict were deposed and Pope Gregory, for the good of the Church, voluntarily resigned. Oddone Colonna was then elected and took the name Pope Martin V, at last ending the schism and uniting the Church. As noted, one the major causes of the schism was the lingering influence of France upon the papacy. The most serious expression of this was in the so-called Babylonian Captivity, also known as the Avignon Papacy. From 1309 until 1377 the popes resided not in Rome but in the French city of Avignon. It began when Pope Clement V, at the demand of the powerful French king Phlip IV, moved to Avignon. French domination in the College of Cardinals and threats from the kings of France kept the popes in Avignon until 1377 when Pope Gregory XI moved back to Rome. Interestingly, one of the foremost voices for persuading the popes to return to Rome where they belonged was St. Catherine of Siena.