Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign at the end of February because of health concerns. The move is exceedingly rare; the last time a pontiff stepped down for any reason was nearly 600 years ago amid one of the most turbulent periods in church history.
At the time of Gregory’s election in 1406, the church was in the midst of a split that had rent it since 1378, an outgrowth of the Avignon Papacy. Various men from two rival camps simultaneously claimed to be the true pope during the period.
Also called the Papal Schism, the split was driven by politics rather than any theological disagreement. It would prove a turning point in church history.
Gregory was born Angelo Correr in Venice, the son of a nobleman, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. He was successively appointed bishop of Castello (1380), Latin patriarch of Constantinople (1390), cardinal-priest of San Marco (1405), and papal secretary.
Gregory was elected in November 1406 in Rome by a conclave consisting of just 15 cardinals, with the express condition that should rival Antipope Benedict XIII, who was based at Avignon, France, renounce all claims to the Papacy, Gregory would do likewise. That would enable a fresh election to take place, bringing the schism to an end.
A meeting was set on neutral turf in northwestern Italy. Not surprisingly given the nature of medieval Christian politics, the two pontiffs were wary to open negotiations. Before long both began to have second thoughts about giving up power, and each feared capture by his rival’s allies.
Gregory’s cardinals were none too pleased with these developments and openly showed their dissatisfaction, even going to far as to give indications that they might abandon him.
In 1408, Gregory tried to strengthen his base of supporters making four of his nephews cardinals. That, despite a promise he had made 18 months earlier that he would create no new cardinals, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
At this point, seven of the cardinals secretly began negotiating with the cardinals of Antipope Benedict regarding the convocation of a general council, the Catholic Encyclopedia added.
The idea was to depose both popes and elect a new pontiff. They then summoned the Council of Pisa and invited both pontiffs, but both Gregory and Benedict apparently saw the handwriting on the wall and declined to attend.
In June 1409, members of the Council of Pisa deposed both Gregory and Benedict, and elected Alexander V. Now, in effect, there were three popes.
It was only through the Council of Constance (1414-1418) that the situation was finally resolved. Gregory appointed Carlo Malatesta and Cardinal Giovanni Dominici of Ragusa as his proxies.
“The cardinal then convoked the council and authorized its succeeding acts, thus preserving the formulas of Papal supremacy,” according to Wikipedia.
On July 4, 1415, Malatesta, acting in the name of the pope, announced Gregory’s resignation, which was accepted by the cardinals. The council also set aside Antipope John XXIII, who had succeeded Alexander V. Benedict, on the other hand, refused to stand down and was declared a schismatic and excommunicated from the church.
“At the end of the schism, they cleared the decks by getting rid of all three popes and having a fresh election of Martin V,” Norman Housley, professor of history at the University of Leicester, told Bloomberg.
Martin would rule until 1431.
The impact of the schism would reverberate for decades to come, but the most long-last effect would be that cthe oncept of the papacy had been irrevocably altered, according to Tolle Lege, described as “the blog of the Dartmouth Apologia.”
“The papacy would continue to exert influence in secular affairs …,” it writes. “Nonetheless, its ability to act with impunity and without question had been eliminated. The questions that soon did arise, of course, would directly lead to the Protestant Reformation.”
(Above: Image of the Council of Constance, where it was agreed Gregory XII would resign as pope of the Roman Catholic Church.)