The pope resigned today, which has to turn out better than last time. Last time began with what historians call the “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (1305-77), which began when King Philip IV of France imprisoned and abused the 86 year old Pope Boniface, who died in a sack on his way to France. Philip had wanted to tax the French clergy but Boniface said No, because he wanted the money to come to Rome. Philip taxed them anyway so Boniface excommunicated Philip. Philip then captured Boniface and roughed up the elderly pope enough that he died.
When the cardinals met to elect a new pope to replace Boniface, Philip intimidated them into electing a pope who would be a stooge for the French. The new pope accommodated Philip and promptly moved the seat of his papacy from Rome to Avignon, where his line remained for 70 years, (hence the term, “Babylonian Captivity of the Church”).
By 1377 the popes had had enough and Pope Gregory XI decided to return the papacy to Rome. The papacy had come close to collapse because the rest of Europe knew the popes were servants of the French, and the English, Germans, and Italians began to rebel against papal authority. Gregory saved the papacy by moving it back to Rome, but then he died the following year.
The French cardinals traveled to Rome to elect a new pope. They intended to vote for another French pope, which had been business as usual for the past 70 years. But a popular uprising in Rome forced the cardinals to elect an Italian, Urban VI, who then proceeded to remove the French from offices within the church.
When the French cardinals returned to Avignon, they complained that their election was not free since they were compelled by a mob to choose Urban. The cardinals renounced Urban and chose Clement VII, a Frenchman, as their pope in Avignon.
So now there were two popes, which was a huge problem. The average peasant knew that she must belong to the true church to be saved, but how could she tell which pope led the true church? This problem of a divided church was referred to the theologians at the Sorbonne in Paris, who called a council at Pisa to settle issue. This might have worked except that both popes objected to the council and excommunicated its proceedings. The council ignored the popes, and after deposing and excommunicating them, chose Alexander V as their new and true pope. However, church law didn’t allow a mere council to elect a pope so the old popes had grounds to reject it. The Council of Pisa had merely compounded the problem, for now there were three popes rather than two, all claiming to lead the one true church and excommunicating the others.
What to do? The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund now got involved. He fulfilled canon law by forcing the Pisa pope (John XXIII) to call a council at Constance. Because it was called by a pope, the Council of Constance had ecclesiastical authority. Its first order of business was to depose the Pisa pope who called it. The pope in Rome, Gregory XII, saw the writing on the wall and resigned, but the pope in Avignon, Benedict XIII, excommunicated everyone and fled to Spain where he ruled over a mini-papacy for 5 years. He may have been Baptist.
The Council of Constance elected an Italian, Martin V, who became the new pope in Rome. There, fixed it. Whatever transpires in the next few weeks, it has to go better than that.