It is said of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi that, in conversation with an opponent of the Catholic religion, he jokingly asked: “How do you think you can destroy the Church if not even we cardinals have managed to do it?…”
Historical or not, these words contain a profound truth. Two thousand years have passed since the foundation of the Church by Our Lord Jesus Christ. During this time, she has been the victim not only of incessant attacks from external enemies, but also of those inflicted by the spiritual weakness – if not, with all due respect, by the moral depravity and corruption – of her human element, and yet she remains unshaken.
Perhaps the greatest testimony to her immortality and divine character lies not in her survival of the Roman persecutions, barbarian invasions or wars of religion… but in the defections of her own members. Opening any book of ecclesiastical history is enough to profoundly convince us of this; examples abound in every age and place. For brevity’s sake let us choose just one of them, which took place in the middle of the fourteenth century. The tragedy began in France…
At the beginning of the second millennium of the Christian era, serious disagreements between the religious and civil power became more marked. The question of investiture led to a dispute about the limits of jurisdiction between the two spheres, a dispute that escalated to clamorous proportions. This led to incidents such as that of September 7, 1303, when the King of France, Philip the Fair, sent troops to threaten Pope Boniface VIII, and one of the soldiers struck him in the face, in what became known as the outrage of Anagni.
Not long afterwards the new Pope, Clement V, thought it his duty to remedy the dissension by making two serious concessions: he had himself crowned in Lyon and appointed nine Cardinals, all of them French. He also installed himself – at least temporarily – in Avignon, pending a solution to the disagreements with the Capets. But the Pontiff’s temporary residence outlived him, and the phase he had inaugurated seemed to have come to stay. The Avignon exile had begun.
Of the seven Popes of that period – including Clement V himself – all were French. None of them ever fully renounced the idea of returning to Rome, but the situation in the capital of the Christian world did not encourage them to do so.
Would the Papacy be safe in the Italian peninsula? Political divisions were on the rise there, its parties at war with each other in the cities. Amidst the general tension, perhaps only one sentiment united Italians: the dislike of foreign domination. Now, not only were the Popes of Avignon of French nationality, but so was almost the entire Sacred College! On the other hand, it did not seem that the Pope could find peace in France, since a conflict with the English was brewing, the beginning of a hundred-year war…
The Pope must return to Rome!
At this difficult juncture, the voice of God did not cease to sound through His elect.
St. Bridget of Sweden reported that she heard Our Lord Jesus Christ himself condemn the greed, pride and debauchery of the court of the French Popes, and accused them of populating hell! Meeting in Rome with Urban V – the sixth Pope in exile – she begged him to remain in the Eternal City, but without success.
It was only St. Catherine of Siena who, after many difficulties, finally persuaded Gregory XI to return the papal see to its rightful place.
One Pope in Rome and another in Avignon… failure?
Thanks be to God, in 1377 the Holy Father was in Rome, only to die the following year. The situation for the cardinals was proving to be complex, since popular unrest was pressuring the conclave to elect a Roman Pope. Bartholomew Prignano – not Roman but Italian – was chosen, and he took the name of Urban VI.
Everything seemed to promise peace. However, imprudent reforms, coupled with the Supreme Pontiff’s harsh and irascible character, aroused the antipathy of the cardinals. In vain did St. Catherine warn him, begging him for greater temperance. Five months later, thirteen French cardinals claimed to have voted invalidly due to duress, and they elected an antipope, Clement VII, who returned to Avignon.
Christendom was divided from top to bottom: the Great Western Schism had begun
At left, antipope Clement VII – Palace of the Popes – Avignon (France); centre, Pope Urban VI – Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome; at right, antipope Alexander V
The Great Western Schism had begun. It was the biggest schism until then known to the Catholic world – a chaotic situation, generated by a tangle of human interests, which would last for forty years.
Had Catherine been mistaken? Had not the Church been better off before – in exile, but with one head – than now with two? It was the path of apparent failure that God was asking of her. And not only of her. Indeed, such were the infidelities of those times that, to punish men, Providence allowed divergent opinions even among the Saints.
Siding with the Roman Popes were St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Sweden, Blessed Peter of Aragon; with the Avignonese popes, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Colette, Blessed Peter of Luxembourg. Nor did the death of both “popes” resolve the controversy, for each party elected its respective successor. Three decades of attempts at harmonization proved futile. Christendom was divided from top to bottom. How could this nightmare be brought to an end?
Worse than two Popes
In the year 1409, twenty-four Cardinals – fourteen from Rome and ten from Avignon – decided to take action. They convened a council in Pisa, condemned the two pontiffs and elected the Greek Petros Filargo, Cardinal of Milan, who adopted the name of Alexander V. Now, that assembly was completely invalid because it had not been convened by a Pope… Far from being remedied, the case had only been aggravated: all the pontiffs – as if one could speak of more than one at a time, at least in those days – refused to abdicate, and there were no longer two but three pretenders to the Petrine Seat! Gregory XII in Rome, Benedict XIII in Avignon, and Alexander V in Pisa.
At the end of 1414, the successor to the “See of Pisa”, namely, antipope John XXIII, convened a council in Constance with a view to finally settling the matter. However, that act was also illegitimate. What could be expected? A fourth pontiff?
At this impasse, God raised up a providential man alongside the true Pope, Gregory XII, in order to bring the schism to an end: Blessed John Dominici, of the Order of Preachers. Helped in large measure by a series of situations that an atheist would call “coincidences”, but whose cause a man of faith can well see, he managed to settle the matter.
Pressured from all sides, John XXIII finally resigned. As for Benedict XIII, his almost insane obstinacy had so discredited him as to put him “out of the game”; he was finally deposed in 1417.
That left Gregory XII, the legitimate Pope. However, the internal situation of the Church did not allow him to remain in power. He too had to resign in order to make the manoeuvre acceptable to all Christendom. How could this be done in a council that was invalid, as the Council of Constance had been, since it had been convened by an antipope? Such an act would justify the conciliarist theses, contrary to true Tradition. It was then that the diplomatic skill of Cardinal Dominici came into play. He had in his hands a document of Gregory XII reconvening the Council – thus making it official – and another in which he declared his resignation as Pontiff, ending the Great Schism without prejudice to the authority of the Vicar of Christ.1
The growing holiness of the Church is seen in the men and women who heroically correspond to grace
Detail of the Fiesole Altarpiece, by Fra Angelico – National Gallery, London
Finally, the Apostolic and still Roman Catholic Church – incredible as it may seem – returned to having only one Pope, Martin V. The schism was over, although it could not be said that peace in the Church had been fully achieved. The Renaissance was heading out to high sea, and the Fisherman’s barque would have to endure new storms… but the Holy See never left Rome again.
The Church truly is indestructible!
Does this statement not seem a logical conclusion to the account of the events we have just recalled? Yes, logical, but insufficient. It would not be in keeping with the grandeur of Our Lord to grant immortality to His Mystical Body, only for it to stagger as if in extremis until the end of time. To be immortal is not enough, more is needed.
In our profession of Faith we proclaim: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Catholic Church.” And this is how St. Paul preached: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, […] that He might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).
The Catholic Church is holy because of her intimate union with Jesus Christ, her Bridegroom, her Head and her Saviour (cf. 1 Cor 12:27; Eph 1:22-23; 5:23-32);2 holy because she has received from Him the commission to continue His saving mission (cf. Jn 3:17; 17:18); holy… because of her members: this is the controversial question! Nevertheless, this constitutes a theological certainty.
Since the Holy Spirit is, as it were, the soul of the Church, He sanctifies her continually, sending her ever new charisms and rejuvenating her until she is brought into perfect union with Jesus Christ.3 This growing holiness is only found in men and women who have responded heroically to grace. It is their fidelity that weighs in the balance; the rest is of no account. Can we call an apple tree bad because we find a few rotten apples fallen under its branches? Let us judge the tree, then, not by the diseased elements that have ceased to be nourished with the divine sap of the Paraclete, but by the healthy fruit.
Whatever storms Peter’s barque may yet have to weather, the Church will always remain immaculate
“Christ Rescuing Peter from Drowning”, by Lorenzo Veneziano – State Museums of Berlin
Why does God allow such disasters?
But the perplexity continues: why does God allow Holy Church to pass through situations in which she is struck by a maelstrom of successive disasters, and from which it seems she will never recover?
First of all, let us not be unjust by imputing to the Creator alone a responsibility that falls primarily upon us men. In fact, divine mercy willed to endow us with the wonderful gift called free will, which enables us to acquire the merit necessary to reach Heaven. Now, either freedom is complete or it does not exist; if our capacity for choice were limited to only certain actions, we could not really call ourselves free. But if we misuse this privilege granted to us, the fault is ours, not His.
Moreover, the existence of evil in the Church seems in some ways to be explained by its existence in the world. Why does not the Lord, who is so good, put an end to all imperfection on the face of the earth? St. Thomas Aquinas answers us: “God therefore neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and this is a good.”4 In other words, Providence has mysterious designs that surpass our understanding, but which are necessarily good, because they come from the Supreme Goodness. Perhaps only at the Last Judgement, as the Catechism explains,5 will we fully know the ways in which, even by the tragedies of evil and sin, He has led the world to its final repose, for which He created Heaven and earth.
Thus, it is after the storm that the Church is found purified of all that should not be in her, left only with what is good, beautiful and true, so as to continue to lead and guide civilizations in peace.
Do the Gospels not describe how the first Pope denied the Divine Master three times? Jesus himself had just previously prayed for him – and, in him, for all Popes: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Lk 22:31-32). After the fall, St. Peter’s contrition brought him even greater glory!
In the same way, the Church will remain undefiled until the end of time, in spite of everything. Whatever storms Peter’s barque may yet have to weather, this certainty can never be extinguished in our spirit: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). ◊
1 For more details on the role of Blessed John Dominici at the Council of Constance, see the article: CABALLERO BAZA, EP, Eduardo Miguel. A Providential Man to Resolve the Great Schism. In: Heralds of the Gospel. Nobleton. Vol. 11. No.116 (June 2017); p.16-21.
2 Cf. LEO XIII. Satis cognitum, n.7; 22: ASS 28 (1895-1896), 712; 723.
3 Cf. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. Lumen gentium, n.4.
4 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. I, q.19, a.9, ad 3. In the body of this same question, the Angelic Doctor makes it clear that God “in no way” wills the evil of sin. Nevertheless, it remains true that He permits it.
5 Cf. CCC 314.