• Matthew Castro

The Babylonian Captivity and the Great Papal Schism

By Matthew Castro


The need for reformation in the church had become apparent as the papacy’s power ascended under Innocent III and the codification of canon law. The law legitimized the pope’s absolute authority over the church and the people within their realm. With the pope now established as the “Vicar of Christ,” how would European sovereignties respond is the next chapter in the reformation story.

Pope Boniface VIII

In the year 1300, Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed the year to be a holy year. He viewed himself as a king ruling over his vast empire. Boniface adorned in imperial robes cried out, “I am Caesar. I am emperor.” For decades, the papacy reigned without any rivalries to their absolute power as the Caesar of the New Roman Empire and the “Vicar of Christ.” The popes that followed Innocent III imposed their will upon emperors and kings. Boniface III followed that established practice.

Christendom was an identity that formed between the fourth and fourteenth centuries that defined the church as the unifying force in Europe. The empire that replaced the Roman Empire was the Christian empire led by the papacy. The nobility of nations and territories were vessels under the thumb of the pope. Therefore, the citizens within these kingdoms were automatically members of the Catholic Church. Local authorities were used to defend the faith against heretics and threats to the empire and church. Expansion of the empire through military conquest was viewed as a legitimate means of Christianizing heathen people and land.

However, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the idea of a unified empire under the rule of the pope in Rome began to fade. The kings in England and France especially began to see their states functioning without direct papal guidance. Nationalism became a growing trend as people identified with their country of residence and viewed their monarch as their true ruler over the pope in matters of state. The papacy was slowly been viewed by the people of England and France as the ruler of sacred affairs alone.

As nations transitioned away from dependance on land wealth, other sources of tax revenue were being levied by rulers. This political development led kings and rulers to expand their tax authority. Edward I of England and Philip the Fair in France began to test their tax authority to finance military campaigns against one another. They both taxed the clergy within their realms. Boniface VIII viewed these actions as a threat against the authority of the church.

In 1296 Boniface issued Clericis laicos, a document threatening excommunication for any lay ruler who taxed the clergy and any churchman who paid those taxes without papal consent. Edward responded to Boniface with a decree of his own. If any clergy did not pay the tax, they would be stripped of all legal protection and their properties would be seized. Phillip threatened with a complete embargo on all exports of gold, silver, and jewels to Rome. Boniface heeded the warning, and resented his threats of excommunication. Papal authority over the state was beginning to wane.

Boniface refused to give up entirely. Boniface issued Unam sanctum. He claimed, “It is altogether necessary for every human being to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” As the conflict raged, Philip decided to execute a bold plan of attack by claiming Boniface’s election to the papacy was illegal and by removing the pope. Therefore, Philip hired William of Nogaret, an advisor to the king, to kidnap Boniface and bring him to France to stand trial before a special church council.

Nogaret and some troops broke into Boniface’s bedroom in Anagni. The people of Anagni, which is in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, rose up and rescued him. However, Boniface died weeks later. This episode of church history proved that in the eyes of Europeans the pope had no authority over the affairs of the state. People began to distinguish secular and religious authority.

The Babylonian Captivity

In 1305 the College of Cardinals elected a Frenchmen, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, as Pope Clement V. He chose to stay close to home, and never set foot in Rome. King Philip now had the pope under his thumb now. This period began what is called the Babylonian Captivity, which lasted 72 years. Following Clement, six successive popes, all French, chose to reside in a little town called Avignon rather than in Rome.

Avignon was located on the Rhine River, and the city grew in population as the clerical bureaucracy took residency there. This displacement of the pope to France from Rome symbolized the weakening of the Christian empire and the papacy as the pope was surrounded on all sides by the French kingdom and under the constant gaze of the French throne.

The German emperor, Louis the Bavarian, viewed the entire affair as an opportunity to question the whole papal structure. In 1326 Marsilius and his colleague John of Jandun presented Louis with a work titled Defender of the Peace, which asserted that the church was the community of all believers and that the priesthood was not superior to the laity. All Christians are equal in the church, and the church clergy are simply servants of the community of believers. This view, which is called conciliarism, subordinated the pope to the authority of the general council. This theory presented a more democratic governing structure for the church.

During the Babylonian Captivity in Avignon, the papal court was completely bankrupted. Moneymaking schemes were devised to raise funds for the pope. One of these schemes was the annat tax, which demanded the entire first year’s income of a new bishop, be given to the pope. Often the pope would create more annates by transferring a bishop to vacant seat, or delaying the appointment and receive all the income in the interim. However, the most lucrative moneymaking scheme was the granting of indulgences, which promised removal of years in purgatory to a person or dead soul for a set price. The pope would often use the threat of excommunication to secure taxes and revenue.

The Great Papal Schism

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI returned to the papacy to Rome. However, after his death, the College of Cardinals, who remained packed with Frenchmen, were pressured to elect an Italian pope. Urban VI was elected pope. However, shortly after Urban VI’s election, the cardinals had second thoughts about his selection. They declared Urban to be an illegitimate pope. Urban responded by creating a new College of Cardinals. The French cardinals chose a new pope, Clement VII, who moved to Avignon. Urban remained in Rome.

This affair became known as the Great Papal Schism. Two rival popes led the church. Each pope had his own College of Cardinals, which insured their papal succession. Each pope claimed to be the rightful ruler of the church, or the true Vicar of Christ, with all the powers of canon law to execute including excommunication. This rivalry led to the dividing of loyalties among the nobility. France and Scotland sided with Clement, and England and Italy sided with Urban. However, within each country, loyalties were divided between the two popes, which caused property damage and other threats. No general council could be called at the time, because canon law only allowed for the pope to authorize councils and council decisions.

In 1409, a majority of the cardinals from both colleges agreed to met at Pisa. They elected a third pope, Alexander V. However, Clement and Urban refused to recognize the decision of the cardinals in Pisa. Now, three popes claimed the title of Vicar of Christ. One of the popes actively sold indulgences to finance a crusade against another.


In 1414 in the German City of Constance, the emperor assembled a council of church leaders from all over Europe. The council was organized as a convention of nations (England, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain) with each nation receiving one vote. Martin V was chosen as the new pope and the council submitted a plan of limiting the authority of the papacy. The council in Constance ended the Great Schism. However, Martin refused to lead according to the direction of the council. He believed, as the Vicar of Christ, that he possessed authority on earth to rule the church not general councils.The conciliar movement initiated by the council at Constance failed to rein in the pope’s authority. By 1450, the later councils failed to achieve any real reforms.

The popes of the fifteenth century busied themselves with arts and politics. The popes acted more like kings than religious leaders. The corruption and immorality in Rome reached new heights under Roderigo Borgia, who ruled as Alexander VI (1492-1503). He was obsessed with wealth, power, and sexual passions.

Constance set in motion a movement towards reform in the church as Christians in Europe began to think in terms now of “national churches” and representative bodies for church governance. Germany will once again add another chapter in the slow march towards reformation in the church.


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