Last Time a Pope Resigned – The Western Schism

February 11, 2013 | Middle Ages, Reformation

It has recently been announced that Pope Benedict will be resigning. Although this is unprecedented in recent years, it is not the first time this has happened. The last time was some 600 years ago with the resignation of Pope Gregory XII, ending what was called the Great Schism or Western Schism in the Catholic church. It began with the search for a successor after the death of Pope Gregory XI in 1377. Rome broke out in riots intended to ensure the appointment of a Roman as Pope, but the cardinals selected Bartolomeo Prignano of Naples, who became known as Pope Urban VI, because they said there were no suitable Roman candidates. But within just a few months many of those same cardinals were dissatisfied with the new Pope. They repaired to Anagni in central Italy, and appointed Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII. This second appointment threw the Catholic church into disorder. There had been rival popes popes before, but now the same group of cardinals had appointed two popes! Nations aligned themselves behind different candidates, and the church would remain split for decades. It became an important factor in European diplomacy, with rival nations supporting different popes. Even when the initial claimants died, the crisis did not end. Urban was replaced by Pope Boniface IX in 1389, and Clement in Benedict XIII in 1394. When Boniface died in 1404, the cardinals of the Roman faction promised to not elect a rival pope in Benedict would resign, but when the Avignon papacy refused, they elected Innocent VII, and then Gregory XII.

The schism was finally resolved with the Council of Constance in 1414. Gathered in Constance, Germany, the council was composed of all the great leaders of the Catholic church. It recommended that both Benedict and Gregory resign, along with Pope John XXIII, an antipope, or illegitimate pope. Gregory had empowered his representatives to present his resignation. He did this to reunify the church, and was appointed to the second-highest rank in the Catholic church. Benedict refused to resign, and was excommunicated.

But the Council of Constance did more than just resolve the Great Schism. In the early 15th century the Protestant Reformation was just beginning. The Council condemned the doctrine of John Wycliff and his followers. One of these was John Huss, who was called to appear before the Council. Huss was a Czech reformer, and he knew the danger that awaited him when he set out to appear, he had already been excommunicated. He only came when he received a safe passage from the Emperor. But the promise was broken and Huss was arrested. Refusing to recant, he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. His dying words were, “Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on us!”

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