As we stated, though the papal schism was a scandal, churchmen were at a loss how to end it. For the view had embedded itself in men’s souls that, there was no power on earth to which the papacy was responsible. But there were individuals who openly declared that under Christ the supreme judicial power in the church is not the pope but the believers as assembled in a general council and who therefore urged that a general council be called for the healing of the schism. The idea of a general council made speedy and many converts ; and finally, in 1408, the cardinals of both popes—Gregory XII, the last pope of the Roman line, and Benedict XIII—were prevailed upon to issue a call for such an assembly in Pisa. There it met, as we have seen, in 1409. It tried the popes in their absence and the sentence pronounced was to the effect that both were “notorious schismatics, promoters of schism, and notorious heretics, errant from the faith, and guilty of the notorious and enormous crimes of perjury and violated oaths.” The cardinals as instructed by the council, now elected Peter Philarges, archbishop of Milan, who assumed the name of Alexander V. But, as we saw, Gregory and Benedict refused to yield their authority, so that there were now three popes each with a following among the nations of Europe. Rome, Naples and many sections of Germany adhered to Gregory XII, who sat in Rome; Spain, Portugal and Scotland supported Benedict XIII; Alexander V was acknowledged by England and France.
A year after his election in 1409, Alexander V died, and the cardinals chose Bathazar Cossa, who assumed the name John XXIII. So there were again three popes. John XXIII was of noble birth. Having begun his career as a pirate, he studied at Bologna, where he was graduated in law. Boniface IX made him a cardinal. If he was the youngest and most able of the three popes, he was also the most detestable, being sunk in guilt and lowest debauchery. But the deeply depraved clergy felt no repugnance at his election. Cardinal, Peter d’ Ailly, said openly that the church had become so corrupt that a good pope would be out of his element, and that she could only be ruled by unbelievers.
Under the three popes the scandal over the schism grew more and more unbearable. The best men violently protested against the denunciation of one pope against another and the division of the Roman patriarchate between rival claimants. It is unquestionably true that nothing did so much as the schism to prepare the way for the abandonment of the papacy in the sixteenth century.
In 1410, Sigismund, king of Hungary and Bohemia and the son of Charles IV, king of France and the last of the direct Capetian line, was elected emperor of Germany (Holy Roman Empire). He was proud and arrogant. In the electoral assembly he voted for himself, with these words, “There is no prince in the empire whom I know better than myself. No one surpasses me in power, or in the art of governing, whether in prosperity or adversity. I, therefore, as elector of Brandenburg, give Sigismund, king of Hungary, my vote, and herewith elect myself emperor.” Besides, he was immoral and deceitful, and he had little sense of justice and honor. Yet he was zealous for the church and state and on him men fastened their hopes for healing the schism. What was wanted is a new Council called by the emperor with the consent of one or more of the popes. The emperor called the council to meet in Constance on November 1, 1944. To the call pope John XXIII, who had been driven from Rome and thrown into the emperor’s hands, affixed his seal.
The council lasted four years. It was the most august, brilliant and largest assembly of the middle ages. It included all the temporal and spiritual powers of Europe. They were present either in person or by their representatives. The temporal powers present in person were the emperor, almost all the electors, the great vassals of the empire, the members of the nobility, the ambassadors of all the Catholic sovereigns, even those of Greece and Russia. The spiritual dignitaries consisted of three patriarchs, thirty three cardinals, forty seven archbishops, one hundred and forty five bishops, one hundred and forty five abbots (heads of monasteries), eighteen hundred priests, seven hundred and fifty doctors, and a crowd of monks. The popes Gregory and Benedict sent their legates. John XXIII appeared in person. The council was formed of the following nations: the Spaniards; the Germans, including the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Poles, Hungarians; the Italians, French and, English.
Constance was a city of 5500 people. Its location, its fields and vineyards were beautiful “even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” Its climate was healthful and its municipal laws were just for the strangers, the reports of whose number vary from 50,000 to 100,000, including, besides the temporal and spiritual rulers already mentioned, bakers, beadles, to walk before dignitaries, grooms, scribes, goldsmiths, merchantmen of every kind, and 171 doctors of medicine, 1500 knights, 142 writers of bulls, 1700 buglers and fiddlers and players on other musical instruments. The number also included 700 harlots. And they practiced their illicit trade openly or in rented houses. Huss wrote, “The council is a scene of foulness, for it is a common saying among the Swiss that a generation will not suffice to cleanse Constance from the sins which the council has committed in this city.” There were fairs, dances, and shows in the streets. Yet no one was allowed to be out after curfew. The city council put a ceiling on prices of all victuals.
Sigismund and John XXIII were the principals of the notables present. The emperor was praised without measure. He was likened to David and Daniel of the Scriptures. He was pleasure-mad, was much in the company of women, and was always short on money, but he was a sworn enemy of heretics. His queen Barbara, the daughter of a count, was there, too, a tall and fair woman with a questionable reputation.
The lay rulers, representing the people, demanded reform of the internal abuses of the church. But the clergy, the spiritual lords, who ruled the council, were solely bent on putting an end to the scandal of the papal schism, and upon restoring the external dignity of the church. The two main subjects of discussion were the healing of the schism and church reform. The deliberations were unhurried, for in that age men had leisure. In February the first notable decision was made to the effect that the voting be by “nations”, by Spanish, English, German, French, and Italian, and that each nation have one vote. The purpose was to neutralize the vote of the eighty Italian bishops and doctors, who were supporting John XXIII. Each nation met in separate places. On the sessions of the council, what was decided by the vote of the majority of nations was binding. It became evident to John XXIII, who hoped to secure the endorsement of the council, that the scheme was the removal of all three popes. He therefore tried to bring the council to a sudden close by flight. Dressed as a groom, he left the city at noon on a “little horse” during the progress of festivities of a tournament, purposely instituted by Frederick, duke of Austria, whom John had vested with the office of commander of the papal troops on a yearly salary of 6000 gulden. The pope was overtaken and brought to Luis III, of the Palatinate, for safe-keeping. The council ruled to excommunicate any of the delegates who left Constance before the end of the proceedings. On April 6, 1415, it made a momentous statement. The council declared that as “representing the Catholic Church militant, it has its authority immediately from Christ, and that to it the pope and everyone owned obedience in things pertaining to faith and the reformation of the church of God.” Essentially identical ideas were expressed by Nieham in a tract that bore the title, “The Union of the Church and its Reformation”. The church as headed by Christ is infallible, but the pope and the hierarchy may err. An unworthy pope may be deposed. It is folly to say that he has power in heaven and on earth to bind and to loose from sin, he being a mere man. As for the council, the pope must submit to it.
Having affirmed its jurisdiction over the pope, the council tried John XXIII. He was charged with many crimes such as unchastity, lying, disobedience to parents in his youth, simony, adultery, sodomy, and other crimes. He was accused of often having denied the resurrection of the dead. On May 29 the council deposed him. In 1419 he was appointed cardinal bishop by Martin V, but died six months thereafter. On July 4, 1415, Gregory XII resigned. One pope remained, Benedict XIII. On December 13 of the same year he was declared deposed by his own cardinals. Nevertheless he continued to assert himself till death as the only legitimate pope. But he was deserted by Scotland and Spain, who had supported him, and on July 26, 1417, he was formally deposed by the council. On November of the same year, the cardinals elected Otto Colonna, who took the name of Martin V. The church was again united under one pope.