Question from Michael Greve on 4/22/2008:
Dear Matthew, I was recently speaking with a friend of mine who informed me of of time when there were three popes at one time. I brought up the anti-popes and his retort basically was that they were all legit popes because they were all elected by cardinals. He claimed that the first pope was not Italian so a huge riot broke out and the pope had to flea, then the cardinals voted on a new one who WAS Italian, and finally the old pope came back and the cardinals voted a third pope was elected to be a middle ground between the two of them. If this has any historical value, then whats the real story, who were the popes (or anti-popes) and what does the church say about it? If the cardinals did vote for the second and third pope, are they both popes?
God Bless, Michael
Answer by Matthew Bunson on 4/26/2008:
You are referring to the Great Western Schism, a division that plagued the Western Church from 1378 to 1417. The schism began owing to the disputed election of Pope Urban VI in 1378. There were many reasons for the schism to erupt, but the chief one is usually ascribed to the effort of the French cardinals to retain the strong French influence over the papacy that had characterized parts of the 14th century. French cardinals rejected the election of the Italian Bartolomeo Prignano and instead chose Robert of Geneva who took the name of Clement VII and is counted among the antipopes.
There followed various efforts to heal the schism, but these failed and, ultimately, there were three claimants to the papacy: the legitimate pope, Gregory XII and two antipopes, Benedict XIII and Alexander V. Alexander was succeeded as antipope by John XXIII (not, in any way to be confused with the legitimate pope and blessed of the 20th century). To find some resolution to the crisis, Emperor Sigismund and many Church leaders proposed a general council. The result was the Council of Constance, 1414-1417. After long deliberations, the antipopes John and Benedict were deposed and Pope Gregory, for the good of the Church, voluntarily resigned. Oddone Colonna was then elected and took the name Pope Martin V, at last ending the schism and uniting the Church.