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The “Babylonian Captivity” of the Popes


While the Kings of France had been friendly to the popes since the time of Charlemagne, this relationship changed toward the end of the thirteenth century. In particular, the King of France, Philip IV (1268–1314)—also known as Philip the Fair—began his quarrels with Pope Boniface VIII when the pope resisted his attempt to levy a tax on the clergy and the Church. Some regarded Pope Boniface VIII as a “bad pope” because he practiced nepotism openly. For example, Dante in the Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 19, hinted that Pope Boniface (who was still living when Dante wrote his poem) was destined for hell. However, the Council of Vienne (France), an ecumenical council called by Pope Clement V to investigate Pope Boniface’s actions, did not condemn him. Besides, he had some good accomplishments in addition to defending the Church against unfair taxation and asserting the age-old Christian principle of the supremacy of the pope. Among his accomplishments were: (a) he negotiated the Peace of Amiens (1303), which ended the war between the French and the English; and (b) he proclaimed the Great Jubilee of 1300, an event that was joyously participated in by 200,000 pilgrims. The Great Jubilee granted an indulgence to repentant sinners who received the Sacrament of Penance and visited the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul a specified number of times.


Pope Boniface VIII

A painting by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)

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When Pope Boniface, in his Bull Unam sanctam, asserted the supremacy of the pope over all temporal rulers, King Philip falsely accused him of heresy and sent his armed agents to seize him in his papal palace at Anagni, Italy. Although Italian noblemen rescued him and brought him back to Rome, Pope Boniface died one month later (in October 1303) due to the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his captors. Pope Benedict XI, who succeeded him, excommunicated those who took part in the sacrilegious capture of Pope Boniface, but he reigned as pope for only nine months. It was rumored that he was poisoned on account of his opposition to King Philip.


Since the death of Pope Benedict XI, there has not been a pope in Rome for the next seventy-three years. The pope who succeeded him, Pope Clement V, was not a Roman but a Frenchman and was elected largely through the powerful influence of King Philip. Under pressure from the king, he took his residence in Avignon, France. Pope Clement was a weak pope and made many concessions to King Philip. It was during the reign of Pope Clement V that King Philip the Fair suppressed the Knights Templars, confiscated their wealth, and ordered 54 Knights, whom he charged as heretics, to be burned at the stake. See The Knights Templars.


The next six popes after him were also Frenchmen who, under pressure from the French monarch, established their residences at Avignon. This is why many historians refer to this period of Church history (1305–1378), which is marked by the absence of the pope in Rome, as the “Babylonian Captivity” of the popes. It was analogous to the seventy-year absence of the Jews in Jerusalem during the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. (See the List of Roman Catholic Popes in the fourteenth century to get the names of the seven Popes during the “Babylonian Captivity.”)


Great things were also achieved while the popes were in Avignon. For example, missionary activity was expanded in India, China, and Central Asia. However, the fact that the popes, who were technically the bishops of Rome, lived at Avignon and not in Rome was rather odd and had an overall adverse effect on the Church. First, it gave the impression that the pope was being controlled by France and could no longer be trusted to lead the Church. Second, it necessitated raising taxes unnecessarily on the clergy and religious orders to build new buildings and maintain papal operations outside Rome. Third, Rome itself suffered great losses on account of the pope’s absence; for example, businesses declined, the population dwindled, and the great basilicas were neglected and left in ruins. For these reasons, many wise and saintly people petitioned the popes to return to Rome. Among them were the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) and the visionary St. Bridget of Sweden. But the one who had the honor of being able to successfully persuade Pope Gregory XI—the last of the Avignon Popes—to return to Rome was the lay Dominican woman, St. Catherine of Siena. She wrote letters to the Pope, and through her prayers and pleading, she induced Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome in January 1377.  


The Western (or Papal) Schism, aka The Great Schism


Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, a year after he returned to Rome. The people of Rome did not want the next pope to be a Frenchman again, so they demanded the cardinals at the papal conclave choose a Roman for the next pope. However, the one who got elected, although not a Frenchman, was not a Roman either. Pope Urban VI, the newly elected pope, was from Naples, Italy.


Not only was Pope Urban VI not a Frenchman, but he was also not a cardinal. The cardinals who participated in the election were not too happy that someone outside the College of Cardinals was elected. Besides not being a club member, the newly elected Pope Urban VI also had a rather stern personality. Soon after his election, for example, he rebuked the French cardinals for their worldly lives. St. Catherine of Siena warned the new pope not to be too severe with his cardinals, but he did not heed her advice. The sad result was that the French cardinals conspired against him, left Rome, returned to Avignon, and declared his election invalid. They contended that the cardinals at the papal conclave were only forced by the mob to elect him. So, they elected “another pope,” who called himself Clement VII. This rival pope, known technically as an “antipope,” established his residence at Avignon.


This was the beginning of the so-called Western Schism (or Papal Schism)—a scandalous situation where more than one man claimed to be the true pope. St. Catherine of Siena, of course, sided with the true pope, which was Urban VI. She sent letters and pleaded with rulers and bishops across Europe to support the true pope, but the schism brought confusion not only in Europe but in the whole Church. Even the Dominican St. Vincent Ferrer was confused. He initially supported the antipope Benedict XIII in Avignon, France. But, when he finally recognized who the true pope was, he denounced Benedict in a sermon that made the antipope lose his followers.


St. Catherine of Siena

A painting by Rutilio Manetti (1571–1639)

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St. Vincent Ferrer

A painting by Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516)

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At Rome, Pope Urban VI reigned for two years and was followed by Pope Boniface IX, then by Pope Innocent VII, and finally by Pope Gregory XII. (See the List of Roman Catholic Popes.) At Avignon, the antipope Clement VII reigned for sixteen years and was followed by another antipope, who took the name Benedict XIII. At first, only two men were claiming to be the legitimate pope, but in 1409, the Italian bishops, who wanted to remedy this schism, held an unauthorized council at Pisa in which they deposed the two popes and elected another pope, who called himself Alexander V. Both the pope in Rome and the pope at Avignon did not want to give up their claim to the papacy, so the result was that there were now three men claiming to be the true pope! The antipope at Pisa reigned for only one year because he died. But another antipope succeeded him, who took the name John XXIII.

Unlike the Eastern Schism (or the Greek Schism), which is still unresolved to the present day, the Western Schism (or the Papal Schism) lasted for only forty years. The last part of the Papal Schism, when there were three claimants to the throne of Peter, lasted five years. The schism ended when the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund persuaded the pope at Pisa, with the approval of the pope at Rome, to convene the Council of Constance (1414–1418). In this council, both the popes in Pisa and Rome agreed to resign; the pope at Avignon refused to resign and was deposed. A new pope was elected, who took the name Martin V. With the election of Pope Martin V, the Papal Schism ended. There was great joy throughout Christendom because the Church was again united under one shepherd.

This was not the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that there had been an antipope. A simple glance at the List of Roman Catholic Popes shows that there have been antipopes since as early as the third century of the Christian era. This was the reason why some bishops had proposed the false idea of conciliarism, which stipulates that a general council is above the pope and that even the pope is bound to obey it. The intention of the bishops in formulating this idea was, of course, to avoid the unhappy situation of having multiple individuals claim to be popes with no higher authority to settle it. Notwithstanding the good intentions of the bishops, conciliarism is a flawed doctrine. The council has authority only when the pope himself is at the head of the council. The pope is the head of the Church. He alone can call a general council, and the council itself can make a binding decree only when the pope approves it.

St. Joan of Arc, Patroness of France


It was shortly after the Western Schism ended that the beautiful saga of St. Joan of Arc (1412–1431) and her valiant campaign to save France happened. The French and the English had been at war since 1338 in what is now known as “The Hundred Years War.” It was a quarrel about who would be the next king of France. At the time, both the French and the English had placed their claim to the throne of France, and, for a while, the English were winning the fight. This was the situation until Joan of Arc—called by God to lead the French Army—came to the scene. Guided by heavenly “voices,” Joan obtained permission from Charles VII, the eldest but the uncrowned son of the king, to lead the French army against the English. Under Joan’s leadership, the French won the momentous Battle of Orleans, and after other victories, Charles VII (called the “Dauphin” because he was the eldest son of the king) was crowned king on July 17, 1429. With the crowning of Charles VII, Joan’s mission was accomplished, but she continued to join the fighting.


St. Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII

A painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)

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The following year, Joan was captured by the Burgundians (the French allies of the English). She was then sold to the English for a huge sum of money. To get rid of her, the English secular authorities asked the local bishop, Pierre Cauchon, to try her as a witch (because of her claim that she heard heavenly “voices”). Joan pleaded that her case be brought to the pope, but her request was denied. She was convicted as a witch and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. See the transcript of the Trial of St. Joan of Arc. For a shorter narrative, see True Trial of St Joan of Arc.

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St. Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake

A painting by Hermann Stilke (1803-1860)

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Twenty-five years later, King Charles VII reopened her case, and Pope Calixtus III ordered a re-trial. Those who had participated in the trial of 1431 and who were still living confessed that they were intimidated by the English to testify against her. Therefore, the court, with the approval of the Holy See, annulled and reversed the decision of the earlier trial, and, in 1920, Joan was canonized by Pope Benedict XV. St. Joan of Arc is now regarded as the Patron Saint of France.



The Council of Florence (1438-1445)


In addition to the schisms that plagued the church in the late fourteenth century, the church now also had to contend with new heresies. For example, John Wycliffe (1324–1384), a priest and professor at Oxford University in England, started teaching that a Church was not necessary, that the Bible was the sole rule of faith (sola scriptura), and that everybody should be able to read and interpret the Holy Scripture for himself. To this end, he even made his own English translation of the Bible, even though English translations of large portions of the Bible were already available then. As might be expected, John Wycliffe made his translation, with or without other collaborators, from the Latin Vulgate, which was the standard biblical text at that time.


John Wycliffe undermined all authority by saying that no one could have any authority unless he was free of sin. Disgruntled by the morally loose and corrupt life of the clergy, he rebelled against Church authority and maintained that the clergy lost their authority when they fell into mortal sin. Then he also denied the reality of transubstantiation, which refers to the changing of the substance of bread and wine during Mass into the body and blood of Christ. Although his ideas were condemned by the Council of London in 1382, they influenced the thoughts of a Bohemian clergyman, John Hus (1375–1415), who taught similar doctrines. John Hus rejected the authority of the pope and attacked the Church’s teachings on the Blessed Virgin, indulgences, and communion under one kind. He was excommunicated for his heresy in 1411 and ordered by the Council of Constance (1414–1418) to retract. He refused to do so and was burned at the stake, but his followers—the Hussites—persisted in their heresy.


The Execution of John Hus

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John Wycliffe’s and John Hus’ heretical ideas were the same errors that would later be taught by the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Although the Council of Constance condemned these doctrines, the errors had already spread to various countries. The bad seeds had been sown, creating an intellectual climate that historians now call “the eve of the Protestant Reformation.”


A synod, which started in Basel in 1431, aimed to reconcile the Hussite heretics with the Church. But the synod started badly on the issue of the supremacy of the council over the pope (conciliarism). So, Pope Eugenius IV dissolved the council and opened a new synod in the city of Ferrara. However, some of the original members of the Basel Synod persisted in their idea that the council had a higher authority than the pope. They, therefore, started a new schism, deposed Pope Eugenius, and elected an antipope who called himself Felix V. This schism only lasted 10 years. The Basel camp did not have a large following because most of Europe remained faithful to Pope Eugenius. When the antipope resigned in 1449, the schism ended, and the rest of the original Basel fathers returned and supported Pope Eugenius’ successor, who was Pope Nicholas V.


The outbreak of pestilence in the city of Ferrara forced Pope Eugenius to transfer the synod from Ferrara to Florence. Unlike the Basel Synod, the Council of Florence was an ecumenical council. One accomplishment of the Council of Florence was that it made the Eastern and Roman Churches sign a Decree of Union that, at least for a short while, put the Greek schism to a close. The union was short-lived because in 1453 the Turks conquered Constantinople, and, to ensure that there would be no cooperation between the East and the West, they appointed a new patriarch who was opposed to the Decree of Union and would reject it. The new patriarch rejected the decree, and the Greek schism resumed. However, many of the Slavonic and other churches in Asia Minor and Palestine, which previously accepted the Decree of Union, decided to remain united with the Roman Catholic Church and did not rejoin the schism.

The Invention of the Printing Press (1445)


Although Johannes Gutenberg (1398–1468) is usually credited as the inventor of the printing press, the art of using blocks to produce printed characters had already been used in Asia 600 years before he produced his first printed Bible—the Gutenberg Bible (See Invention of the Printing Press.)  Still, his contribution to the technology, which mechanized the transfer of ink from movable type to paper, should be recognized. With this invention, the mass production of books became possible. For the first time, Bibles, which used to be copied by hand and usually possessed only by monasteries, became available to a greater number of people. For the Church, the printing press was an important tool in its mission of spreading the faith. For the world, it was also an important means for the rapid diffusion of science, art, and literature. Indeed, the beginning of the Renaissance is seen to coincide with the invention of the printing press.



The Church during the Renaissance


The Renaissance may be viewed as a transition period from the theocentric (or “God-centered”) attitude of the Middle Ages to the homocentric (or “man-centered”) attitude of the modern era. In terms of human pursuits, this is seen as a move from the celestial to the secular; in the spiritual sphere, it was a passage from mysticism to naturalism; in the political sphere, it was a shift from theocracy to sovereignty; in economic life, from serfdom to independence; in science, from speculation to experimentation; in the source of knowledge, from revelation to reason. The new spirit of humanism dominated the Renaissance.


With the invention of the printing press, literature, the arts, and the sciences all flourished under the new spirit of the Renaissance. During this period, the popes were great scholars and patrons of learning and the arts. Pope Nicholas V hired the Dominican painter, Fra Angelico, to paint his study in the Vatican palace. He built the Vatican Library and bought thousands of books by Latin and Greek authors. Pope Sixtus IV beautified Rome; he paved and widened the streets and built churches (including the Sistine Chapel!), buildings, and bridges. Pope Julius II invited Michelangelo to paint the story of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and asked Raphael to decorate the rooms of the Vatican Palace with scenes that depicted important events in Church history. Pope Leo X, the last of the Renaissance Popes, supported artists, writers, and scholars of every kind and completed the construction of the Church of St. Peter in Rome.


Raphael Sanzio, one of the great Renaissance Artists

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But, while the Renaissance popes had been highly cultured, they were also worldly and suffered the same ills that plagued the kings and rulers of the time. As rulers of the Papal States, they started thinking like secular rulers and protected themselves by practicing nepotism, that is, by appointing relatives to fill important Church positions. Most of them were related by blood to one of their predecessors. This includes Pope Alexander VI, one of the most notorious men ever to hold the papacy, who was made a cardinal by his uncle, Pope Calixtus III. Pope Alexander’s extravagance and scandalous private life were criticized and denounced by the Dominican political reformer, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). See Girolamo Savonarola.


The Spanish Inquisition (1479 - 1834)


Although the Church had promoted the arts and sciences during the Renaissance, her contribution to the improvement of humanity was overshadowed by the scandals caused by the frailty and sins of her members, both among the clergy and among the laity. In addition to the reign of bad popes, there was also the reign of bad kings and secular rulers who used the arms of the church, such as the Inquisition, to further their political aims and selfish ambitions.


Overall, the Papal Inquisition in the 13th century served as an instrument of Divine Mercy in many cases. It saved many lives and mitigated the punishment that would have been more severe in the hands exclusively of the State. It is easy to see this when one compares the activities of the Papal Inquisition, for example, with those of the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1479 by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Although the Spanish Inquisition was also officially an ecclesiastical institution (since it received its authority from a papal bull granted by Pope Sixtus IV), it was largely controlled by the Spanish monarchs, who received the privilege of selecting or appointing the inquisitors. This State-controlled Spanish Inquisition was responsible for the torture and deaths of hundreds of Moors and Jews during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Technically, the Jews and the Muslims were not heretics because they were not Catholics who departed from the faith. But they were the target of the Spanish Inquisition nonetheless.


An Inquisition Tribunal

A painting by Francisco Goya (1746 - 1828)

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Biased critics of the Catholic Church often blamed the atrocities and cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition upon the Church, but this was misleading and unfair. The Church inquisitors were often under pressure to make decisions based on evidence presented to them by the State, which used torture to extract or fabricate evidence from those under trial. Although the Inquisition might be good in itself, it was abused by State officials who saw the Inquisition as a tool for eliminating political opponents and confiscating coveted properties from wealthy individuals. Pope Sixtus attempted to intervene when the Spanish Inquisition proved too severe, but the Spanish Crown—which saw it as a powerful weapon for controlling the Jewish and Moorish communities in Spain—did not heed the pope’s call for restraint. The Spanish Inquisition continued for centuries, even going way past the eighteenth century, although the brutality seen during the fifteenth century had been severely reduced.

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