The Papal Schism & Conciliar Movement Fully Explained | Church History

Who is the Head of the entire Christian church? The answer is simple. Jesus Christ is. Paul; in his Epistle to the Colossians, chapter 1, verse 18; wrote, “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” Paul wrote this verse by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit a full generation after Jesus ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of God. The answer is simple. Jesus Christ was, is, and will always be the Head of the entire Christian church. The biblical book of Hebrews emphasizes His superiority to all creation, including the most prominent of people and angels. However, just before He ascended into Heaven, Jesus commissioned His Disciples saying, “as you go out everywhere, make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always—until the end of the age.” In Jesus’ physical absence, His Apostles (the word apostle means one who is sent out) were to carry out Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. 

As Christianity spread around the world, and the number of Christians increased, people overseeing local congregations of Christians were referred to as bishops. These bishops sought to lead Christians in carrying out the Great Commission through disciple-making, baptizing, and teaching. In larger cities like Antioch, Ephesus, Rome, and Alexandria; a single bishop would oversee the bishops of individual churches. As Rome and Constantinople became major capitals of the Roman Empire and the Christian population, their bishops became more prominent than bishops of less populated areas. In the year 607, Boniface III, the Bishop of Rome, was the first to assume the title of “universal bishop” or “pope.” The word pope comes from the Latin word for “father.” Therefore, when people refer to the Bishop of Rome as the Pope, they are referring to him as the bishop of all bishops or the father of the Christian church. Now, Jesus was clear when He told His Disciples “ . . . you are all brothers, . . . do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in Heaven.” However, six centuries later, the Roman Bishop willingly took the title of Pope and his successors have done the same ever since. Rome became the most prominent of all locations ruled by a bishop in the church.

If we move forward in time to the fourteenth century, we find the political and economic situation in Rome worsening while the political and economic situation in France was improving. The activity and focus of the Western church had moved northward from Rome to France. The popes were given a residence in Avignon, a town in southern France, where the popes preferred to live from 1309 to 1377. The seven popes who lived in Avignon were all French and were under the influence of the French monarchy. Roman Christians had lost their bishop to France. This absence of the pope from Rome has been referred to as the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” The popes in Avignon were also criticized for their extensive spending.

Two notable women called for the return of the pope to Rome. St. Brigitta of Sweden joined a group of pilgrims heading toward Rome in 1350, for what was called a “Year of Jubilee.” As was the case with the Years of Jubilee in the Old Testament era with the Israelites, so in the fourteenth century, Pope Clement VI called for a canceling of debt, a return of property to original owners, and a time of thanksgiving for those who survived the Black Plague. When Gregory XI became pope in 1370, Brigitta warned him she had seen a vision that if he kept away from the papal residence in Rome, he would die prematurely. Likewise, St. Catherine of Siena, a prophetess and miracle-worker from Tuscany, warned Gregory to do his duty in Rome rather than return to exile in France, which was the cause, she reported, of all the problems the church was experiencing then. Gregory heeded their warnings and returned to Rome at the end of 1377. A few months later in 1378, he died. 

Imagine the situation. After about seventy years of this “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” the French wanted a French pope, and the Italians wanted an Italian pope. An Italian mob formed in Rome, and they prevented the cardinals from leaving the city. The trapped cardinals had to elect a successor to Gregory, so they chose Urban VI. Pope Urban came from a humble financial background and loathed the rich life the French popes and cardinals had been living. He appointed enough new Italian cardinals that they outnumbered the French ones. The remaining French cardinals were scared off, ran to Anagni, and claimed they were forced to vote under duress—that the election of Urban should be voided. They therefore elected their own Clement VII to be Gregory’s rightful successor. Well, this created a situation with two popes! The French pope lived in Avignon again. He immediately took up arms against the Roman pope. While the military action was unsuccessful, it did finalize the schism between the French and Italian popes. Neither recognized the other as valid. France and Scotland recognized the French pope. Italy, England, Scandanavia, Hungary, and Poland recognized the Italian pope. Germany, Portugal, Castile, and Aragon shifted back and forth. International lines of papal loyalty were drawn, and sometimes the choice was based on international political reasons. What a mess! Who would solve the problem of the dual papacy?

Back in the year 325, when the church became divided over the full and eternal deity of Christ, Emperor Constantine called a council to meet in Nicæa to settle the matter. Bishops— representing every major area in which Christianity had spread—gathered to listen to all sides and prayerfully and corporately recognize the truth. For over a thousand years after the Council of Nicæa, larger councils and smaller synods continued to meet to listen to, discuss, and pray about matters of theology and faith. Therefore, many Christians called for a general council to solve the problem. In the battles for political power between kings and popes, the council also emerged as a powerful group of people. When the French and Italian popes heard that a general council would be called, they each proactively called their own councils, but those failed, and each pope retreated to his own stronghold. 

A general council met in Pisa, Italy in 1409 to solve the papal schism. It had the support of both sets of Cardinals as well as the courts around Europe. The council declared that both of the popes were unworthy of their positions, both were to be deposed, and Alexander V should be recognized as the one, universal pope. The Council of Pisa then adjourned and returned each to their own home. However, the French and Italian popes refused to recognize the decision of the council, so the church ended up with three popes instead of two. What a mess all over again! 

A second council was convened by Emperor Sigismund and the Pisan Pope, John XXIII, in Constance, a town in southwest Germany. The Council of Constance, which met from 1414-1417, enjoyed considerably more authority than its predecessor in Pisa. John thought the council would depose the French and Italian popes, leaving him as the one true pope. However, John soon realized that there were many accusations circulating through the council regarding his own poor behavior, so he snuck away in disguise. He was later captured, returned to Constance, and imprisoned for the rest of his life. The French pope, Benedict XIII, took refuge in Peñíscola, Spain, where he continued to claim he was the rightful pope, but no one paid attention to him, and a replacement was not named after he died in 1423. The Italian pope, Gregory XII, resigned on his own free will, which allowed for a brand new pope—and only one pope—Martin V, to be elected by the council.

The council adopted a principle called Haec Sancta, which recognized the authority of a proper council as being above the popes but below Christ. However, Martin and subsequent popes began to show more zeal and ability, so the need for a general council decreased. The end result was that the conciliar movement solved the problem of the papal schism but then faded into obscurity from that time forward. Popes would continue to call councils to meet at the pope’s command in the Western church up to the present day. However, these Catholic councils would never again wield authority over the popes in terms of choosing a pope or deciding on theological matters in opposition to a pope.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church in the fourteenth century, and the Papal Schism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were a dark time for proponents of the papacy. These events were commonly referred to by Protestants during the sixteenth-century Reformation as rationale for Christians pulling themselves away from their ties to Rome and focusing instead directly on their relationships with God.

  1.  English Standard Version.
  2.  Matthew 28:19-20.
  3.  The apostle Paul told his disciples, Timothy (1 Tim 3:1) and Titus (Titus 1:7) to appoint overseers (Greek: episkopoi) over the churches he had planted. The earliest apostolic fathers, subjects of earlier videos, also recognized the leaders of congregations as overseers.
  4.  The title had been used informally before Boniface, but it took more of an official feel in 607 when accompanied by the title of Universal Bishop. See “Bishop of Rome,” Religion Wiki, accessed April 30, 2022.,as%20a%20courtesy%2C%20except%20in%20strict%20historical%20discourse.
  5.  Matthew 23:8-9.
  6.  Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 232-233.
  7.  Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, second edition (Dallas: Word, 1995), 220.
  8.  Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Six—The Middle Ages, A.D. 1294-1517 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 102.
  9.  Justo González, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 402-404.
  10.  Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990).
  11.  While scholars and church leaders are not in full agreement as to which councils and synods should be recognized, it is generally accepted that there were seven general ecumenical councils: Nicæa (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680-681), and Nicæa II (787). These will be the subject of a separate series of videos. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven other councils it considered to be ecumenical prior to a council called to meet in Pisa to settle the papal schism: Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), and Vienne (1311-1312). See Edward Peters, “Councils and Synods of the Medieval Church,” Oxford Bibliographies, last modified October 28, 2014, www.oxfordbibliographies/view/document/obo-9780195396584/obo-9780195396584-0615.xml
  12.  Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), chart #46.
  13.  Justo González, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 408-409.
  14.  Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale, 1980), 159-181.