Sr. Louise Zdunich

May 27, 2013

QuestionThe Catholic Church maintains it has the line of apostolic succession but some Protestants believe that line was broken during the Middle Ages when there was confusion as to who the real pope was. How do we still justify apostolic succession in view of Church history?


AnswerThis unusual episode in the life of the Church led to 40 years of uncertainty. It was an unfortunate, often misunderstood period. Politics and passion played a predominant role as they often do when problems arise which seem to stem from religion.

Sometimes called the Western Schism, this event occurred when civil and Church powers were not clearly delineated. Its long-term results were less serious than the Eastern Schism which involved the break between Eastern and Western Christianity.

This succession of events may be difficult to understand but I will try to give a brief summary. From the beginning of the 14th century, due to conflicts with kings over spiritual and temporal power, the popes had been exiled to Avignon, France.

In 1376, St. Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380) pleaded with Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, his rightful place. Shortly after his return, he died on March 27, 1378.

The conclave for an election opened with ongoing demonstrations by Romans and others trying to influence the decision. On April 8, the 16 cardinals in Rome unanimously chose Urban VI who had exemplary morals and integrity and was opposed to vice, simony and display. The six French cardinals, as well as sovereigns of states, were notified of the election but no objections were raised.


However, Urban VI did not live up to their expectations, so the dissatisfied cardinals, claiming fear of the mobs during the election process, elected Clement VII on Sept. 17.

Clement was intellectual, skillful and related to, or allied with, the main royal families of Europe. After a short sojourn in Naples, he was driven out and went to Avignon.

Thus began a period of two claimants to the papacy, one in Rome and one in Avignon. Two almost equal but separate groups came into existence as everyone was confused which pope was the true one.


Even the theologians and saints were divided in papal loyalties. Many followed the opinion of the heads of their countries. St. Catherine of Sienna again, although unsuccessfully, intervened with the pope and the cardinals insisting that Urban VI, good or not, was the pope the cardinals had validly elected.

Whenever the papal claimants died in Rome and Avignon, replacements were elected by their respective supporters. In Rome, Urban VI was succeeded by Boniface IX who was later followed by Innocent VII and then Gregory XII.

In Avignon, Benedict XIII succeeded Clement VII. However, support for Benedict by bishops began to wane because of his fiscal demands, while the French king, tired of supporting Benedict, eventually forbade his subjects to submit to this pope.

After Benedict's communication with supporters was blocked, he became more conciliatory.

Continuous efforts had been made to rectify the situation. Finally, wearied of divisions, the Council of Pisa in 1409 elected another individual, John XXIII, resulting in a third claimant to the papacy. Many discussions and conferences followed, as well as interventions from civil powers.

The 1414 Council of Constance deposed the suspicious John XXIII, dismissed the obstinate Benedict XIII and received the abdication of the timid Gregory XII. With the election of Martin V in November 1417, the schism was ended.

Was this a real schism? The characteristics of schism were not present as no revolt was initiated against papal authority nor was there any desire to separate from the head of the Church.

On the contrary, everyone desired and worked for the unity signified by the descendants of Peter as the mark of the true Church. The same cardinals who created the turmoil eventually took action and cleared up the misunderstanding.


Was the line of succession broken? Specialists, both earlier and later ones, who deal with this period believe it was not. In 1378, at the death of Pope Gregory XI in Rome, Urban VI was validly elected. Therefore, those elected to replace him were in the line of succession.

When a pope is elected in a proper manner as Urban VI was, he is pope until his death or resignation. In 1414, the successor of Urban VI of Rome, Gregory XII abdicated, thereby leaving the see vacant for the election of Martin V, thus preserving the line of succession.

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