Pope Gregory having died, the cardinals chose Bartholomew Prignano, who took the name of Urban VI. Urban gained for himself the hostility of the cardinals by his attacks upon their worldliness, and four months later they were demanding his resignation. But, as we saw, Urban would not resign; and the French cardinals elected Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII. This, as was remarked, had never before happened. There had been rival popes before but always chosen by opposing parties; but these two popes had been duly elected by the same cardinals. (Half of the countries of Europe declared in favor of the Roman pope, Urban VI; the others adhered to Clement VII, who took up his residence in Avignon;
and the papal schism that lasted thirty nine-years (1378-1417) was complete. In Rome, as we saw, this period included the successive reigns of four popes and in Avignon, two, Clement VII and Benedict XIII. The last of the popes of the Roman line was Gregory XII.
It is undoubtedly true that the papal schism was the greatest calamity that could befall this institution. This was openly admitted by Benedict XIII, whose real name was Peter de Luna, and by his rival, Gregory XII the last pope of the Roman line. Both popes decried the schism in their letters to each other. Gregory asserted that he was willing to do all within his power for the sake of healing the schism. He wrote to his rival that each should be willing to abdicate rather than be responsible for the continuance of the breach. With his hand on the New Testament he quoted the words, “he who exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” He promised to step down from his throne, if Benedict follow his example. Benedict, too, in his letters, deplored the schism, which he characterized as detestable, wretched, and dreadful; but he did not accept Gregory’s proposal but suggested that the matter be discussed with a view to seeing what could be done. One or both popes might abdicate, he said, if necessary. Both popes, however, were equally unwilling to yield their authority. Though twice deposed, Benedict persisted in asserting his claims to the papal dignity to his dying moment.
Though the papal schism was a scandal, men were at a loss how to terminate it. For the view had firmly embedded itself in men’s souls that there was no power on earth to which the papacy was responsible. There were individuals who suggested that a general council be called for the healing of the schism. Konrad of Gelnhousen and Henry of Langenstein were of this conviction, and also Marcillius of Padua. Konrad, in advocating the idea, wrote that the church had two heads, Christ, the heavenly and the pope, the earthy. It is from Christ that the church, which is the body of believers and not the pope and the cardinals, derives its life and power directly and is therefore infallible. Hence under Christ the supreme judicial power in the church is not the pope but the body of believers as assembled in a general council. And to this power the pope is answerable. Identical views were expressed by the others. The idea of a general council made speedy and many converts. The views of Gelnhausen were held by the faculties of the university of Paris. But they were vigorously opposed by the English confessor of Benedict, John Hayton. He called the university of Paris “a daughter Satan, mother of error, sower of sedition, and the pope’s detainer,” and he declared that the pope was answerable to God only.
In 1394, the university of Paris set forth three methods by which the schism could be healed. Both popes could abdicate, or a commission could be appointed to adjudicate the claims of both popes, or a general council could be called for the settlement of the matter. The ecclesiastics came to see in the council the only hope. Finally, in 1408, the cardinals of both popes were prevailed upon to issue a call for such an assembly in Pisa. There it met in Pisa 1409. Attending it, were cardinals, bishops, heads of the great orders, abbots, doctors of theology and canon law, and the representatives of lay rulers. It was thus an august assembly. The council was the crystal- ization of a new idea in Church Polity, to wit, the supremacy of the council over the’ papacy.
The first session was held in March. The first act of the council was its profession of the Holy Trinity and the Catholic Faith, and that every heretic and schismatic will be driven into everlasting desolation by the curse of God to share with the devil and his angels the burnings of hell fire unless he repent and become reconciled to the church. On its eighth session the council declared that it was “a general council representing the whole universal Catholic Church and lawfully and reasonably called together’’. The cardinals, as instructed by the council now elected Peter Philarges, archbishop of Milan, who assumed the name of Alexander V. This made the situation worse than before. There were now three popes instead of two. Rome, Naples, and many sections of Germany adhered to Gregory XII. Spain, Portugal and Scotland supported Benedict XIII. Alexander V was acknowledged by England and France.