One time there were three popes…and they all excommunicated each other
The Catholic Church has a great and normally quite somber history. However, no history as long as the Church’s is without a few incidents which, at least in hindsight, are quite amusing. The Western Schism, also known as the Papal Schism, Great Occidental Schism, or Schism of 1378, is one such incident.
Two political popes
The Western Schism began in 1378 after the death of Pope Gregory XI. Urban VI was elected to the papacy but quickly became very unpopular among the Roman people because he was Neapolitan and among his own chancellors for being temperamental, suspicious, and reformist.
Many of the cardinals under Urban VI left Rome and appointed Robert of Geneva (who took the name Clement VII) as a rival pope in Avignon. The pope and new antipope quickly declared each other excommunicated, to little effect.
A third pope
The two papacies split Europe between nations that supported one pope’s legitimacy over the other’s. This caused a religious crisis throughout Europe and some small wars broke out in which one area of antagonism was the support of rival popes.
Even though the original pope and antipope perished, their supporters continued keeping to two separate papacies, electing Boniface IX and Benedict XIII. In 1410, a council was finally formed to attempt to solve the schism for good. However, the Council of Pisa ended up not deciding upon a single pope from the two available, but instead elected Alexander V as another antipope!
Ending the schism
In 1414, John XXIII, successor to the Pisan antipope Alexander V, convened the Council of Constance with Pope Gregory XII’s support. At this council, both John XXIII and Gregory XII agreed to step down from their respective positions.
The other antipope at the time, Benedict XIII, refused to step down and was instead forcefully excommunicated. While this did help somewhat, the pope elected by this council, Pope Martin V, was soon challenged by yet another antipope, Benedict XIV. The chaos wrought by the Western Schism would affect the Catholic Church for years to come.