The Papacy in Trouble
The 1300s were a ghastly time. The bubonic plague, or Black Death, ravaged Europe and wiped out a third of its population. No one, from royalty to peasants, was safe. The Church was not spared either. New priests were hastily ordained to replace those who perished while taking care of their parishioners.
Meanwhile, England and France began a conflict that would last for more than a century — the Hundred Years' War. Caught up in the struggle, they were not paying much attention to the Church, and the papacy began to lose its power.The Move to Avignon
The fourteenth century had barely begun when power over Europe began to shift back to the secular world. King Philip IV of France drew the papacy into battle by levying taxes on the clergy for defense of the realm. Pope Boniface VIII fought him valiantly but unsuccessfully. After Boniface's death in 1303, Philip secured the election of a Frenchman, Bertrand de Got, as pope. He was “crowned” in Lyons as Clement V, and shortly thereafter he took up residence in Avignon, in the south of France.
Although this move was meant to avoid political tension among the Italian city-states, Clement left the papacy vulnerable to the French monarchy. After Clement died, the next pope made Avignon a permanent seat for the papacy and surrounded himself with church and government officials to do his bidding. Seven French popes would rule from Avignon before the seat returned to Rome.
St. Catherine of Siena was so concerned with the papal seat returning to Rome that she visited the last Avignon pope, Gregory XI, and pleaded with him to return the papal seat where it belonged. In 1377, he did just that.
The papacy's troubles did not end with the pope's return to Rome. Upon Gregory's death, under pressure from Roman leaders, the College of Cardinals elected an Italian pope, Urban VI, who proved to be weak and undiplomatic. Unhappy with this choice, the French cardinals returned to Avignon and elected a pope of their own, Clement VII. Some countries gave their allegiance to Urban, while others preferred Clement VII, dividing the papacy and all of Europe. This calamity, which became known as the Great Papal Schism, lasted for thirty years.
It took the efforts of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to end the Church's ignoble behavior. He called the Council of Constance, which settled the Great Schism in 1417 and resulted in the election of a Roman pope, Martin V.
It was during Martin's pontificate that the extraordinary story of Joan of Arc took place. Now the patron saint of France, her brief life ran from 1412 to 1431. Joan claimed the divine inspiration of angels to unite her country against England. In the end, she was burned at the stake for heresy.
The Church was united again under one pope, but papal power had been damaged. Peasants and the growing middle class were shocked and appalled. The monarchs of various countries grew stronger and more powerful and the papacy could no longer control them. These changes set the stage for the Renaissance, a formidable flowering of the arts, but also the Reformation, the Protestant movement that threatened to destroy the Catholic Church.