By Cora Copelin
Distinguished Senior Thesis, Pacific University, 2009
Introduction: By 1378, the Christians of Europe found themselves divided between two separate popes; one located in the traditional see in Rome while another sat on the papal throne in Avignon. This was partially the result of a bitter political battle Rome and the French territory of Avignon, and the seventy-one years of a papacy absent from St. Peterʼs. Since the papacyʼs beginning in the ninth century and into the eleventh century when the bishop of Rome began to assert his power over the rest of the Christian church, the papal seat had been located in Rome. After clashes between the papacy and the French monarchy, the institution of the papacy found itself located in the papal palace in Avignon. Seventy-one years after the first Avignon pope took his seat in the French territory, Pope Gregory XI decided to return to the Eternal City, but the Rome to which he returned was much different than his predecessor had left it in 1305.
The people of the Holy City, and across Europe, changed while the papacy, essentially, had not. While kings and popes were fighting for dominance, a movement for personal religion had taken hold as people struggled to actualize the Christian faith for themselves. The Church controlled what aspects of religion were taught, how they were taught and how people could live virtuous lives. It was believed that through the Church, a pious life could be lived. But in addition to directing the spiritual life of Christians, the Church played a political role in Europe. In a purely political move, the papacy over-reached in an attempt to exert control over the French monarchy. With this unsuccessful power grab, the French monarchy was able to dominate the head of the Christian church.
During its years in Avignon, the papacy grew more and more corrupt. The Holy See became financially corrupt and was the obvious tool of the French kings. Romans, members of the clergy, and lay people across Christendom pleaded for the return of the papacy to Rome. People, who were not part of the upper Church hierarchy, such as Catherine of Siena wrote to the pope himself, asking for his return to what was considered, the rightful seat of the papacy. However, their hopes of a smooth transition were not realized. The Church structure continued to deteriorate as the papacy moved into the Great Schism, when there would be two legitimate popes elected to preside over Christendom. This split papacy did not mean the end of the Christian Church nor did the schism affect their sense of faith.
Seeing this breakdown of the most powerful religious institution did not cause people to turn away from Christianity nor did it signify the end of Christian faith. Instead, the schism and the corruption that perpetuated it, became the catalyst that forced the lay piety movement to accelerate. This schism gave European laymen and women cause to look at exactly what was wrong with the Church structure. They began to actively seek out their own ways to learn and interpret the faith and bring it out of the sole control of Church officials. In other words, in this paper I argue that it was because of the Great Schism, that accelerated lay piety movement.