02 June 2014
From the Catholic Encyclopedia: History's Mysteries
I don't know why, but I found myself reading the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the "Western Schism", which the article itself notes, was not actually a schism proper, but the most colossal question of disputed fact in the Church's history--the validity of three rival claimants to the Holy See in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. The full entry is here, but I leave you a few excerpts below. Enjoy!
[…]Everywhere the faithful faced the anxious problem: where is the true pope? The saints themselves were divided: St Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Sweden, Bl. Peter of Aragon, Bl. Ursulina of Parma, Philippe d'Alencon, and Gerard de Groote were in the camp of Urban; St. Vincent Ferrer, Bl. Peter of Luxemburg, and St. Colette belonged to the party of Clement. The century's most famous doctors of law were consulted and most of them decided for Rome. Theologians were divided.
[…] After many conferences, projects, discussions (oftentimes violent), interventions of the civil powers, catastrophes of all kinds, the Council of Constance (1414) deposed the suspicious John XXIII, received the abdication of the gentle and timid Gregory XII, and finally dismissed the obstinate Benedict XIII. On 11 November, 1417, the assembly elected Odo Colonna, who took the name of Martin V. Thus ended the great schism of the West.
(2) From this brief summary it will be readily concluded that this schism did not at all resemble that of the East, that it was something unique, and that it has remained so in history. It was not a schism properly so called, being in reality a deplorable misunderstanding concerning a question of fact, an historical complication which lasted forty years. In the West there was no revolt against papal authority in general, no scorn of the sovereign power of which St. Peter was the representative. Faith in the necessary unity never wavered a particle; no one wished voluntarily to separate from the head of the Church. Now this intention alone is the characteristic mark of the schismatic spirit (Summa, II-II, Q. xxxix, a. 1). On the contrary everyone desired that unity, materially overshadowed and temporarily compromised, should speedily shine forth with new splendour.
[…] The benefit of unity had never been adequately appreciated till it had been lost, till the Church had become bicephalous or tricephalous, and there seemed to be no head precisely because there were too many. Indeed the first mark of the true Church consists above all in unity under one head, the Divinely appointed guardian of the unity of faith and of worship. Now in practice there was then no wilful error regarding the necessity of this character of the true Church, much less was there any culpable revolt against the known head. There was simply ignorance, and among the greater number invincible ignorance regarding the person of the true pope, regarding him who was at that time the visible depositary of the promises of the invisible Head. How indeed was this ignorance to be dispelled? The only witnesses of the facts, the authors of the double election, were the same persons. The cardinals of 1378 held successive opinions. They had in turn testified for Urban, the first pope elected, on 8 April, and for Clement of Avignon on 20 September. Who were to be believed? The members of the Sacred College, choosing and writing in April, or the same cardinals speaking and acting contradictorily in September? Fondi was the starting point of the division; there likewise must be sought the serious errors and formidable responsibilities.
Bishops, princes, theologians, and canonists were in a state of perplexity from which they could not emerge in consequence of the conflicting, not disinterested, and perhaps insincere testimony of the cardinals. Thenceforth how were the faithful to dispel uncertainty and form a morally sure opinion? They relied on their natural leaders, and these, not knowing exactly what to hold, followed their interests or passions and attached themselves to probabilities. It was a terrible and distressing problem which lasted forty years and tormented two generations of Christians; a schism in the course of which there was no schismatic intention, unless exception perhaps be made of some exalted persons who should have considered the interests of the Church before all else. … Apart from these exceptions no one had the intention of dividing the seamless robe, no one formally desired schism; those concerned were ignorant or misled, but not culpable. In behalf of the great majority of clergy and people must be pleaded the good faith which excludes all errors and the wellnigh impossibility for the simple faithful to reach the truth. This is the conclusion reached by a study of the facts and contemporary documents.