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Last Papal Resignation In 1415 Ended 'Western Schism'


It is a very rare thing that Pope Benedict has done in resigning, so rare, in fact, that you have to go back to the Middle Ages to find the most recent papal resignation. That resignation in 1415 ended what's known as the Great Western Schism, and that's what Father Thomas Worcester is going to fill us in on. He's a professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Father Worcester, welcome to the program.

FATHER THOMAS WORCESTER: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: This is a fascinating and very tangled history we're talking about here. This is a period of about 40 years, right, where there were two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, France.

WORCESTER: Yes, and then three popes, one in Pisa as well.

BLOCK: OK. We're going to get to that third one in a minute. But first of all, why had the papal residence been in Avignon in the first place?

WORCESTER: Well, a Frenchman was elected pope and pressure was put on him by the French king is really the heart of that. And at the time, roughly half the cardinals either were French or were pro-French. It's a period of time where most cardinals have a strong political orientation or indeed they're very much under pressure from one king or another. But you come to a point where pressure is put on popes to move back to Rome, some would say because of a number of reformers of the church who wanted the church to reconnect with its traditions with the pope in Rome and freer of political control by a monarch such as the king of France.

BLOCK: How did then, if the popes have been in Avignon, how did we end up with a pope in Rome and an anti-pope in Avignon?

WORCESTER: Well, after the return of the pope to Rome, all the cardinals were not in agreement with that and so some were persuaded to elect another pope for Avignon.

BLOCK: What were the effects at this time of having this dual papacy: one pope in Rome and then the anti-pope in Avignon?

WORCESTER: I often say to my students when I teach a course on the papacy, if you think the church has trouble today, it was much, much worse in the past, and I think that's so in various times and places and for various reasons. This would certainly be one of them. There very much was a divided church between those loyal to one or another pope.

BLOCK: And along the way, you mentioned a third pope, and he comes in here. Alexander V is elected, yeah?

WORCESTER: There was an attempt to resolve the matter, which failed, and meant there was a third person. Instead of being the one to replace the other two, he simply becomes a third contender. So you have for a period of time, from 1409, three popes, so that didn't help matters at all.

BLOCK: Well, ultimately, it was resolved. The schism was resolved.


BLOCK: How did that happen?

WORCESTER: Through a council. So a council that was called, essentially a council of bishops, which met in - at the city of Constance in Switzerland. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The city of Constance is in Germany.]

And at that council, the Roman pope resigned. So that's the reference that you've been hearing today to Gregory XII resigning in 1415.

BLOCK: The last papal resignation.

WORCESTER: The last resignation. And the other two - you could say what most historians would consider the anti-popes - were essentially deposed.

BLOCK: I wonder, when you heard about the resignation of Pope Benedict, did your mind start thinking back to the Middle Ages and to the last time that this happened?

WORCESTER: I mean, certainly, the first thought I had was it has indeed been a very long time and that Benedict is quite courageous to do this because he didn't have a good precedent for it. I mean, he now establishes a precedent that I think could be healthy for the church, but, yeah, I mean, you can say there was not a healthy precedent for a papal resignation.

BLOCK: Father Worcester, thanks so much for this lesson in papal history. Appreciate it.

WORCESTER: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Father Thomas Worcester, who teaches the history of the papacy at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Our guest incorrectly places the city of Constance in Switzerland. It is in Germany.