By Alison Williams Lewin
Church History, v. 62, n. 2 (1993)
Introduction: Of all the divisions and crises that the Catholic church endured in its first fifteen hundred years of existence, none was so destructive as the Great Schism (1378-1417). For forty years learned theologians and doctors of canon law argued over whether the pontiff residing in Rome or in Avignon was the true pope. The effects of the schism upon the highly organized administration of the church were disastrous, as were its effects upon society in general. Countless clerics fought over claims to benefices with appointees from the other obedience; the revenues of the church, quite impressive in the mid-fourteenth century, shrank precipitously; and opportunistic rulers especially in Italy did not hesitate to wage private wars under the banner of one or the other papacy, or to prey upon the actual holdings of the church.
Various means had been proposed to resolve the schism: the via concessionis, by which one pope would simply yield his claim to the other for the sake of Christendom; the via facti, by which one pope would use his alliances with secular powers to overpower the other and force his abdication; and the via concilii, by which a general council of the church would decide the strength of the rival claimants’ positions. Though the theologians Conrad of Gelnhausen and Henry of Langenstein had suggested at the very outbreak of the schism that the via concilii was the most appropriate mechanism to resolve it, thirty years passed before an actual council materialized.