Invalid Input

Invalid Input

Search the Remnant Newspaper
Monday, January 11, 2016

Papal History Lessons: The Pope Who Launched a Schism by Being a Jerk

Written by 
Rate this item
(24 votes)
Urban VI Urban VI
Some time ago, one of my readers sent me a plaintive note, saying, essentially, that she thought Pope Francis is an antipope because he is leading the Church, apparently deliberately, into schism. She didn’t know what to make of his statements anymore, either about the Faith or about politics, or his willingness to publicly contradict or misrepresent the traditional teachings of the Faith, scripture or even himself, as he regularly does. She thought – and it’s easy to see how one might – that a pope who really is pope wouldn’t do these things.

I’m going to start with a caveat: I don’t know whether Francis is a validly elected pope or an antipope. I do think there are legitimate questions to be asked about it. I think we have a completely unprecedented situation since we have a man in the Vatican whom we call “Benedict XVI,” who wears the papal whites, who said when he “resigned” that he would not be giving up the “whole” papal charism, but only the “active” part of it. This is such a bizarre novelty that it seems like everyone who is qualified to talk about it is too terrified of the possible conclusions to do so.

I’m not a canonist or a theologian, I’m really just Catholic Joe Schmoe on the internet, but I know that in the entire history of the Church we have never had the invented term “pope emeritus.” It therefore seems simply impossible to claim that we are equipped at this time to evaluate its validity. Is it possible to split the charism of the pope into the active and contemplative sides as Joseph Ratzinger has implied with this action and his explanation? So, for me, I suppose I could say that I think Francis’ claim to the throne is questionable on those grounds: you can’t have two popes and it seems clear that Benedict Ratzinger isn’t completely not-the-pope, even according to his own assertions.

But I would not say the same thing on the grounds of anything Francis has said or done so far. I’ve had sedevacantists screeching at me that this or that outrage from Francis simply must induce me to conclude that he’s an antipope, that he appears to be deliberately obscuring and confusing doctrines and creating mass confusion.

I will say again what I replied: I’m no more qualified to make that call than I am to solemnly canonize him. I can certainly and confidently say that I think he is the worst pope we have ever had. And brother, we’ve had some awful popes! The issue for me is entirely different, and that is because I have studied a little Catholic history and have learned just how bad it is possible to be as pope and still be pope.

Yes, I understand also that Francis is an entirely different and new kind of bad pope. Even devilish scoundrels like the Borgia pope never gave any indication of hating the Catholic Faith qua the Catholic Faith that Francis has. His loathing of the Catholicism of our spiritual ancestors, and of all Catholics who hold it, is evident nearly every time he opens his mouth. But that isn’t enough to grant me personally the authority I would need to call it. As I have been given to understand, (I might have this wrong) that can only be declared by another pope or an ecumenical council, neither of which I am.

A big difficulty is that old Catholic bugaboo the teaching on papal infallibility and the very common misconceptions about it. And certain sections of the internet are alive with discussion about the notion that a pope can “lose” the papal charism when he attempts to formally overturn Church teaching. As far as I can tell, and up to this writing, Francis has not done this last. And I would suggest that the reason he allows his immediate subordinates to blurt out the utterly outrageous heresies they do is that he knows he can’t. Things might be different after his Apostolic Exhortation, that some are calling the “Exhortation of Desolation,” in anticipation of his support for the Kasper proposal.

It all depends, I suppose, on how he decides to go about it. If he continues on this way, shaving as closely as possible to formal declarations of heresy, issuing contradictory, ambiguous or just incomprehensible statements, granting impromptu interviews to newspapers, allowing his subordinates to say things that he does not correct, then we will be having this argument until the next conclave. I think the question simply cannot be answered right now by anyone. As uncomfortable as it sounds, we only have the power to hang on and see what happens next.

The habit we have in our times of drastically misinterpreting and misunderstanding papal infallibility has caused a lot of confusion on this. It is useful to look at what the charism doesn’t do. In truth, the formulators of the doctrine were extremely minimalist. The teaching is couched around with some very precise language that makes clear that it is this thing and only this thing and not any other thing.

Taking that teaching only exactly as it is worded, we can say that being a real pope, and therefore enjoying the protection from the Holy Spirit that we call the charism of infallibility, does not mean that a pope can’t personally hold error. And it doesn’t mean that he can’t make mistakes and even commit grave sins, not even the kind of grave sins that do long-term irreparable harm to the Church. You can be a bad Catholic, a bad administrator, a bad theologian, a very bad guy, and still be pope.

To understand just how bad a guy it is possible to be and still remain within the very strictly defined confines of this definition, to see just how much damage a man can do and still be a valid pope, it helps to look to history.


Once upon a time, rather a long time ago, there lived a priest of the Catholic Church who had a reputation for living very frugally and having a good head for business. And that was about the nicest thing you could say about him. This priest wanted to do good, and had some very clear ideas about how to go about it. He was also a colossal jerk.

Bartolomeo Prignano was born in the town of Itri, in the Kingdom of Naples in 1318. In those days there wasn’t a nation state called “Italy.” Instead, the Italian peninsula was divided up between several different kingdoms and holdings of various kinds, some of which were ruled by kings who were not Italians in any sense of the word. To understand the political situation that allowed Bartolomeo to become Pope Urban VI and launch the Great Western Schism by being a jerk, we have to understand a little about the politics of the time.

The first thing you have to know is that the Kingdom of Naples took up the whole lower half of the “boot” and was ruled by a French king. Well, he was “Angevin” which from our perspective means more or less the same thing as French. Technically, there wasn’t a “France” to be king of in the modern sense either, but that doesn’t come much into this story. Just take it for now that being the head of the “house of Anjou” meant you got to be king of a whole huge whack of Italy as well.

At the time of Bartolomeo’s birth, the pope was technically in charge of the Papal States – the big chunk in the middle of the boot – but he didn’t live there. Instead he lived in Avignon, part of the Kingdom of Naples (French territory). Rome and the Papal States were ruled very badly, ostensibly by a committee of three cardinals, but in reality it was divided between two ancient noble Roman families who were not above murder, street thuggery and general mayhem. Rome was regarded as an ungovernable, unlivable pit, much as it is today.

Some (Petrarch) have called the Avignon papacy, “the Babylonian Captivity” because the rest of Christendom saw it simply as the French kings creating and keeping popes of their very own. From 1309 to 1378 the seat of the Pope was not Rome but Avignon, which happened to be a fiefdom of the Kingdom of Naples. How it all started is complex, but in June 1305 after a deadlock of nearly a year, the 15 cardinals meeting in Perugia finally elected Raymond Bertrand de Got, (who wasn’t present) a Frenchman who called himself Clement V. He was crowned pope in Lyon and never once set foot in Rome as pope. Clement immediately made an alliance with Philip IV of France and moved the entire papal court to Avignon to be closer to his most powerful ally.

Clement set about making various political conciliations to Philip that quickly made it look to the rest of Christendom that Philip wasn’t so much Clement’s ally but his puppet master. His next few acts were to start creating more French cardinals and strengthen ties with France and consequently weakening the whole idea of the pope as the head of the Universal Church. (Also, suppressing the Knights Templar whom Philip hated and whose money Philip wanted very badly.) And there the situation sat for the next six popes, elected and residing in Avignon. For the next 67 years, the papacy was effectively under the suzerainty of France.

The Avignon sojourn was finally ended on September 13, 1376 when Gregory XI – persuaded in part by St. Catherine of Siena – moved his court back to Rome in a not-exactly-triumphal return. So much violence ensued in Rome at his return that he died, disillusioned, just before deciding to forget the whole thing and go back to France.

But this did not end the conflicts over French control of the papacy, and there was worse to come. Nearly all the cardinals by this time were French, and none of them wanted to have a pope back in Rome or to live there themselves. They eventually stormed off in a huff and elected a pope who would take them all home to Avignon. There was a flurry of excommunications and the situation solidified into what we now call the Great Western Schism.

Our hero Bartolomeo Prignano had been a devout monk, highly trained intellectually in Avignon where he made a lot of powerful friends. He was made bishop of Acerenza and then Bari, and was appointed the financial manager of the papal offices. The Catholic encyclopedia says that he was elected for his “business ability, integrity, and knowledge of law,” and because he was a subject of Queen Joanna of Naples, a papal ally. He was also considered a “saintly, learned man, of mature age.” In reality, however, because he was not a cardinal he was hardly known to the electors who just took the word of one or two French supporters.

The conclave, however, was characterized by near total chaos. It was first interrupted by an invasion by the Roman mob who demanded a Roman, or at least an Italian, and refused to be moved until they were promised one. They sat about the Vatican drinking and making a row and were not ousted until morning. Pope Gregory’s return to Rome had been punctuated by riots in the old city, and the French cardinals – hated by Italians – probably feared for their lives.

Archbishop Bartolomeo Prignano was summoned hastily to the Vatican together with three other prelates to conceal the cardinals’ choice. But fearing the hostility of the Romans, before he could arrive they dressed up an old Italian cardinal, Tebaldeschi, in a papal robes and presented him to the crowd and started the Te Deum. Over all this confusion, including the frightened Tebaldeschi’s protests, Prignano arrived at the Vatican and accepted the papacy.

Prignano, now Urban VI, set about what everyone agreed was a needed reform of the curia, “though perhaps not with the necessary prudence,” the Catholic Encyclopedia notes dryly. The German Catholic historian Ludwig Pastor wrote of Urban, “He lacked Christian gentleness and charity. He was naturally arbitrary and extremely violent and imprudent, and when he came to deal with the burning ecclesiastical question of the day, that of reform, the consequences were disastrous.” His cardinals believed, Pastor says, that the election had “turned his head,” made him angry and arrogant, and brought out the worst in his character. He was criticised by contemporary sources for preaching “intemperately” to the cardinals against financial corruption and condemning their luxurious lifestyles.

Indeed, the rest of his pontificate seems surprisingly familiar. He abused and insulted his cardinals and members of the curia, as well as Queen Joanna of Naples, alienating nearly every one of the people who could have helped him govern. He remained popular with the people for a time, but his bad temper and abuse of his immediate subordinates cost him and the Church dearly.

His cardinals started slipping out of Rome on the pretext of it being a hot summer, and on the same day that the French cardinals publicly renewed their allegiance, they gathered secretly to declare the election invalid because of their fear of the mob and Urban an antipope. A few months later these were joined by some of the Italian cardinals, and Charles V of France, in doubt about the validity of the coerced election, started supporting the breakaway faction. A few days after this, they declared Robert of Geneva pope, who called himself Clement VII, and the Schism had formally begun.

The Schism divided Europe down the middle, with all of Western Europe except England, Ireland, and the English dominions in France submitting to Clement VII and the most of Germany, Flanders, and Italy (with exception of Naples) recognizing Urban. Having lost the support of Joanna of Naples, Urban declared her deposed and tried to replace her with one of his nephews, Francesco Prignano, a “cardinal-nephew” described by Pastor as “immoral.”

While an elaborate defence of the election was commissioned by Urban and widely circulated, the pope prepared for war by seizing benefices and Church estates for funds. He forced Florence to pay him an indemnity of 200,000 florins to restore the city to papal favour and lift an interdict imposed by Gregory XI. He had a crusade preached against Queen Joanna and excommunicated her, creating alliances with her Hungarian enemies. Eventually, he declared her arch-rival, Charles of Durazzo, to be king of Naples, and Charles invaded Naples with Hungarian troops and had Joanna murdered in 1380.

When Joanna’s supporter, Louis of Anjou, came to her rescue (too late), Charles realized he was in trouble and renounced his allegiance to Urban, leaving the pope unprotected in Rome. The pope fled to Castel Sant’ Angelo but the fortress was taken, and Urban was forced to flee the city. Unfortunately for him, he went to Naples to confront the faithless Charles, only to be taken prisoner. Eventually, through the negotiations of some of his cardinals, Charles allowed Urban to hold for his own the fortress of Nocera, about 20 km from Naples. He immediately set about infuriating Charles and his wife, Queen Margaret.

There, the pope, the Catholic Encyclopedia says, remained “obstinate and intractable,” and “became daily more estranged from the older members of the Sacred College.” After a while, the remaining cardinals, finally fed up with the abuse, “mediated a more practical way of proceeding; they proposed to depose or, at least, arrest him.”

This plot was revealed to Urban who had six of them imprisoned and their possessions confiscated. “Those who did not confess were tortured, and the King and Queen of Naples, being suspected as accomplices, were excommunicated.” King Charles responded by besieging Nocera, while Urban spent his days raging and anathematizing his enemies from atop the battlements.

He was eventually rescued by two supporters of his former enemy, Louis of Anjou (now deceased) and fled to Genoa in a Venetian ship, taking with him his imprisoned former cardinals. These last he had put to death when he reached Genoa, “a crime unheard of through the centuries,” the chronicler Egidio da Viterbo said. In response to this outrage, the five cardinals he left behind denounced him and withdrew their obedience.

On the death of Charles in Hungary, Urban went to Lucca, a town in the north of Tuscany, and set about taking advantage of the conflict over the succession of the Kingdom of Naples in an attempt to obtain that throne for his nephew, the Cardinal Francesco Prignano of odious fame. He refused communication with Queen Margaret and dismissed the recommendation of a Council made by some German princes and the Avignon antipope, Clement VII, to end the schism.

Instead, he preached a crusade against Clement and travelled to Perugia, gathering soldiers along the way to invade Naples. The soldiers, however, deserted when Urban failed to pay them. He finally returned to Rome “where his refractory temper brought him into difficulties that could only be removed by an interdict.” By this time, he had the support only of the northern Italian states, Portugal, England, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV. In his march back to Rome from Perugia, a road that winds through steep and rocky mountains, Urban fell off his mule at the town of Narni, and it is thought that he later died of those injuries, though poisoning was rumoured. At any rate, he died, on October 15, 1389, unmourned by anyone in Europe.

The Catholic Encyclopedia makes one more of its understated observations: “Urban might have been a good pope in more peaceful circumstances; but he certainly was unable to heal the wounds which the Church had received during the exile of Avignon.”

It also notes, however, that bad as his job as he was, there is no doubt whatever that he was indeed, despite the chaos, validly elected.

Catch Hilary's Regular Column in The Remnant's Print/E-edition  

[Comment Guidelines - Click to view]
Last modified on Thursday, January 14, 2016
Hilary White

Our Italy correspondent is known throughout the English-speaking world as a champion of family and cultural issues. First introduced by our allies and friends at the incomparable, Miss White lives in Norcia, Italy.