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The Eclipse of the Papacy / decline of the papacy

The Eclipse of the Papacy: A Historical Overview

Discover the fascinating history of the Papacy and its decline in power with this comprehensive overview of The Eclipse of the Papacy.

For centuries, the Papacy held immense power and influence over the Catholic Church and the world at large. However, a series of events in the 14th and 15th centuries led to a decline in the Papacy's authority, known as the Eclipse of the Papacy. Learn about the factors that contributed to this historic shift and its lasting impact on the Catholic Church.

The Papacy's Decline in Power.

The decline of the Papacy's power can be traced back to the Renaissance, when new ideas about individualism and humanism began to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation, which began in the 16th century, further weakened the Papacy's influence as many Christians broke away from the Catholic Church and formed their own denominations. The Papacy's political power also declined during this time, as secular rulers began to assert their own authority and challenge the Pope's right to interfere in their affairs. Despite these challenges, the Papacy has continued to play an important role in the Catholic Church and in global affairs.

Introduction to the Papacy and its Importance.

THE thirteenth century had brought to completion a great synthesis, philosophical, theological, political, and social, which had been slowly built up by the combination of many elements. The first element was pure Greek philosophy, especially the philosophies of Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plato, and AristotleThen came, as a result of Alexander's conquests, a great influx of oriental beliefs.  (See Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism. )

These, taking advantage of Orphism and the Mysteries, transformed the outlook of the Greek-speaking world, and ultimately of the Latin-speaking world also. 

The dying and resurrected god, the sacramental eating of what purported to be the flesh of the god, the second birth into a new life through some ceremony analogous to baptism, came to be part of the theology of large sections of the pagan Roman world. 

With these was associated an ethic of liberation from bondage to the flesh, which was, at least theoretically, ascetic. From Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia came the institution of a priesthood separated from the lay population, possessed of more or less magical powers, and able to exert considerable political influence. 

Impressive rituals, largely connected with belief in a life after death, came from the same sources. From Persia, in particular, came a dualism which regarded the world as the battleground of two great hosts, one, which was good, led by Ahura Mazda, the other, which was evil, led by Ahriman. 

Black magic was the kind that was worked by the help of Ahriman and his followers in the world of spirits. Satan is a development of Ahriman.

This influx of barbarian ideas and practices was synthesized with certain Hellenic elements in the Neoplatonic philosophy. In Orphism, Pythagoreanism, and some parts of Plato, the Greeks had developed points of view which were easy to combine with those of the Orient, perhaps because they had been borrowed from the East at a much earlier time. With Plotinus and Porphyry the development of pagan philosophy ends.

 The thought of these men, however, though deeply religious, was not capable, without much transformation, of inspiring a victorious popular religion. Their philosophy was difficult, and could not be generally understood; their way of salvation was too intellectual for the masses. 

Their conservatism led them to uphold the traditional religion of Greece, which, however, they had to interpret allegorically in order to soften its immoral elements and to reconcile it with their philosophical monotheism. 

The Greek religion had fallen into decay, being unable to compete with Eastern rituals and theologies. The oracles had become silent, and the priesthood had never formed a powerful distinct caste. 

The attempt to revive Greek religion had therefore an archaistic character which gave it a certain feebleness and pedantry, especially noticeable in the Emperor Julian. Already in the third century, it could have been foreseen that some Asiatic religion would conquer the Roman world, though at that time there were still several competitors which all seemed to have a chance of victory.

Christianity combined elements of strength from various sources. From the Jews it accepted a Sacred Book and the doctrine that all religions but one are false and evil; but it avoided the racial exclusiveness of the Jews and the inconveniences of the Mosaic law. 

Later Judaism had already learnt to believe in the life after death, but the Christians gave a new definiteness to heaven and hell, and to the ways of reaching the orte and escaping the other. Easter combined the Jewish Passover with pagan celebrations of the resurrected God. 

Persian dualism was absorbed, but with a firmer assurance of the ultimate omnipotence of the good principle, and with the addition that the pagan gods were followers of Satan. At first the Christians were not the equals of their adversaries in philosophy or in ritual, but gradually these deficiencies were made good. 

At first, philosophy was more advanced among the semi-Christian Gnostics than among the orthodox; but from the time of Origen onwards, the Christians developed an adequate philosophy by modification of Neoplatonism. Ritual among the early Christians is a somewhat obscure subject, but at any rate by the time of Saint Ambrose it had become extremely impressive. 

The power and the separateness of the priesthood were taken from the East, but were gradually strengthened by methods of government, in the Church, which owed much to the practice of the Roman Empire.

The Old Testament, the mystery religions, Greek philosophy, and Roman methods of administration were all blended in the Catholic Church, and combined to give it a strength which no earlier social organization had equalled. 

The Western Church , like ancient Rome, developed, though more slowly, from a republic into a monarchy. We have seen the stages in the growth of papal power, from Gregory the Great through Nicholas I, Gregory VII, and Innocent III, to the final defeat of the Hohenstaufen in the wars of Guelfs and Ghibellines. 

At the same time Christian philosophy, which had hitherto been Augustinian and therefore largely Platonic, was enriched by new elements due to contact with Constantinople and the Mohammedans. 

Aristotle, during the thirteenth century, came to be known fairly completely in the West, and, by the influence of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, was established in the minds of the learned as the supreme authority after Scripture and the Church.  

I cannot but think that the substitution of Aristotle for Plato and Saint Augustine was a mistake from the Christian point of view. Plato's temperament was more religious than Aristotle's, and Christian theology had been, from almost the first, adapted to Platonism. 

Plato had taught that knowledge is not perception, but a kind of reminiscent vision; Aristotle was much more of an empiricist. Saint Thomas, little though he intended it, prepared the way for the return from Platonic dreaming to scientific observation. 

Outward events had more to do than philosophy with the disintegration of the Catholic synthesis which began in the fourteenth century. The Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Latins in 1204, and remained in their hands till 1261. 

During this time the religion of its government was Catholic, not Greek; but after 1261 Constantinople was lost to the Pope and never recovered, in spite of nominal union at Ferrara in 1438. 

The defeat of the Western Empire in its conflict with the papacy proved useless to the Church, owing to the rise of national monarchies in France and England; throughout most of the fourteenth century the Pope was, politically, a tool in the hands of the King of France. 

More important than these causes was the rise of a rich commercial class and the increase of knowledge in the laity. Both of these began in Italy, and remained more advanced in that country than in other parts of the West until the middle of the sixteenth century. 

North Italian cities were much richer, in the fourteenth century, than any of the cities of the North; and learned laymen, especially in law and medicine, were becoming increasingly numerous. 

The cities had a spirit of independence which, now that the Emperor was no longer a menace, was apt to turn against the Pope. But the same movements, though to a lesser degree, existed elsewhere. Flanders prospered; so did the Hanse towns. 

In England the wool trade was a source of wealth. The age was one in which tendencies which may be broadly called democratic were very strong, and nationalistic tendencies were even stronger. 

The papacy, which had become very worldly, appeared largely as a taxing agency, drawing to itself vast revenues which most countries wished to retain at home. The popes no longer had or deserved the moral authority which had given them power. Saint Francis had been able to work in harmony with Innocent III and Gregory IX, but the most earnest men of the fourteenth century were driven into conflict with the papacy. 

(Papal power) - related 

The Reformation and the Papacy's Response

At the beginning of the century, however, these causes of decline in the papacy were not yet apparent. Boniface VIII, in the Bull Unam Sanctam, made more extreme claims than had ever been made by any previous Pope. He instituted, in 1300, the year of Jubilee, when plenary indulgence is granted to all Catholics who visit Rome and perform certain ceremonies while there. 

This brought immense sums of money to the coffers of the Curia and the pockets of the Roman people. There was to be a Jubilee every hundredth year, but the profits were so great that the period was shortened to fifty years, and then to twenty-five, at which it remains to the present day.

 The first Jubilee, that of 1300, showed the Pope at the summit of his success, and may be conveniently regarded as the date from which the decline began.

who was pope boniface viii

Boniface VIII was an Italian, born at Anagni. He had been besieged in the Tower of London when in England, on behalf of the Pope, to support Henry III against the rebellious barons, but he was rescued in 1267 by the king's son, afterwards Edward I. 

pope boniface viii dante

There was already in his day a powerful French party in the Church, and his election was opposed by the French cardinals. 

He came into violent conflict with the French king Philip IV, on the question whether the king had the right to tax the French clergy. Boniface was addicted to nepotism and avarice; he therefore wished to retain control over as many sources of revenue as possible. 

He was accused of heresy, probably with justice; it seems that he was an Averroist and did not believe in immortality. His quarrel with the King of France became so bitter that the king sent a force to arrest him, with a view to his being deposed by a General Council. He was caught at Anagni, but escaped to Rome, where he died. After this, for a long time, no pope ventured to oppose the King of France.

After a very brief intermediate reign, the cardinals in 1305 elected the archbishop of Bordeaux, who took the name of Clement V. He was a Gascon, and consistently represented the French party in the Church. Throughout his pontificate he never went to Italy. 

He was crowned in Lyons, and in 1309 he settled in Avignon, where the popes remained for about seventy years. Clement V signalized his alliance with the king of France by their joint action against the Templars. Both needed money, the Pope because he was addicted to favouritism and nepotism, Philip for the English war, the Flemish revolt, and the costs of an increasingly energetic government. 

After he had plundered the bankers of Lombardy, and persecuted the Jews to the limit of "what the traffic would bear," it occurred to him that the Templars, in addition to being bankers, had immense landed estates in France, which, with the Pope's help, he might acquire. 

It was therefore arranged that the Church should discover that the Templars had fallen into heresy, and that king and pope should share the spoils. 

On a given day in 1307, all the leading Templars in France were arrested; a list of leading questions, previously drawn up, was put to them all; under torture, they confessed that they had done homage to Satan and committed various other abominations; at last, in 1313, the Pope suppressed the order, and all its property was confiscated. The best account of this proceeding is in Henry C. Lea's History of the Inquisition, where, after full investigation, the conclusion is reached that the charges against the Templars were wholly without foundation. 

In the case of the Templars, the financial interests of pope and king coincided. But on most occasions, in most parts of Christendom, they conflicted. In the time of Boniface VIII, Philip IV had secured the support of the Estates (even the Estate of the Church) in his disputes with the Pope as to taxation. 

When the popes became politically subservient to France, the sovereigns hostile to the French king were necessarily hostile to the Pope. This led to the protection of William of Occam and Marsiglio of Padua by the Emperor; at a slightly later date, it led to the protection of Wycliffe by John of Gaunt.

Bishops, in general, were by this time completely in subjection to the Pope; in an increasing proportion, they were actually appointed by him. The monastic orders and the Dominicans were equally obedient, but the Franciscans still had a certain spirit of independence. 

This led to their conflict with John XXII ( 1316-34),  During this conflict, Marsiglio persuaded the Emperor to march on Rome, where the imperial crown was conferred on him by the populace, and a Franciscan antipope was elected after the populace had declared John XXII deposed. However, nothing came of all this beyond a general diminution of respect for the papacy.

The revolt against papal domination took different forms in different places. Sometimes it was associated with monarchical nationalism, sometimes with a Puritan horror of the corruption and worldliness of the papal court. In Rome itself, the revolt was associated with an archaistic democracy. 

Under Clement VI ( 1342-52) Rome, for a time, sought to free itself from the absentee pope under the leadership of a remarkable man, Cola di Rienzi. Rome suffered not only from the rule of the popes, but also from the local aristocracy, which continued the turbulence that had degraded the papacy in the tenth century. Indeed it was partly to escape from the lawless Roman nobles that the popes had fled to Avignon.

 At first Rienzi, who was the son of a tavern-keeper, rebelled only against the nobles, and in this he had the support of the Pope. He roused so much popular enthusiasm that the nobles fled ( 1347). 

Petrarch, who admired him and wrote an ode to him, urged him to continue his great and noble work. He took the title of tribune, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the Roman people over the Empire. He seems to have conceived this sovereignty democratically, for he called representatives from the Italian cities to a sort of parliament. Success, however, gave him delusions of grandeur. At this time, as at many others, there were rival claimants to the Empire. 

Rienzi summoned both of them, and the Electors, to come before him to have the issue decided. This naturally turned both imperial candidates against him, and also the Pope, who considered that it was for him to pronounce judgement in such matters. Rienzi was captured by the Pope ( 1352), and kept in prison for two years, until Clement VI died. Then he was released, and returned to Rome, where he acquired power again fora few months. 

On this second occasion, however, his popularity was brief, and in the end he was murdered by the mob. Byron, as well as Petrarch, wrote a poem in his praise. 

It became evident that, if the papacy was to remain effectively the head of the whole Catholic Church, it must free itself from dependence on France by returning to Rome. Moreover, the Anglo-French war, in which France was suffering severe defeats, made France unsafe. Urban V therefore went to Rome in 1367; but Italian politics were too complicated for him, and he returned to Avignon shortly before his death. 

The next Pope, Gregory XI, was more resolute. Hostility to the French curia had made many Italian towns, especially Florence, bitterly antipapal, but by returning to Rome and opposing the French cardinals Gregory did everything in his power to save the situation. However, at his death the French and Roman parties in the College of Cardinals proved irreconcilable. 

In accordance with the wishes of the Roman party, an Italian, Bartolomeo Prignano, was elected, and took the name of Urban VI. But a number of Cardinals declared his election uncanonical, and proceeded to elect Robert of Geneva, who belonged to the French party.  He took the name of Clement VII, and lived in Avignon. 

Thus began the Great Schism, which lasted for some forty years. France, of course, recognized the Avignon Pope, and the enemies of France recognized the Roman Pope. Scotland was the enemy of England, and England of France therefore Scotland recognized the Avignon Pope. 

Each pope chose cardinals from among his own partisans, and when either died his cardinals quickly elected another. Thus there was no way of healing the schism except by bringing to bear some power superior to both popes.

 It was clear that one of them must be legitimate, therefore a power superior to a legitimate pope had to be found. The only solution lay in a General Council. The University of Paris, led son, developed a new theory, giving powers of initiative to a council. The lay sovereigns, to whom the schism was inconvenient, lent their support. At last, in 1409, a council was summoned, and met at Pisa. It failed, however, in a ridiculous manner. 

It declared both popes deposed for heresy and schism, and elected a third, who promptly died; but his cardinals elected as his successor an ex-pirate named Baldassare Cossa, who took the name of John XXIII. Thus the net result was that there were three popes instead of two, the conciliar pope being a notorious ruffian. At this stage, the situation seemed more hopeless than ever. 

But the supporters of the conciliar movement did not give in. In 1414, a new council was  at Constance, and proceeded to vigorous action. It first decreed that popes cannot dissolve councils, and must submit to them in certain respects; it also decided that future popes must summon a General Council every seven years. 

It deposed John XXIII, and induced the Roman Pope to resign. The Avignon Pope refused to resign, and after his death the King of Aragon caused a successor to be elected. But France, at this time at the mercy of England, refused to recognize him, and his party dwindled into insignificance and finally ceased to exist. Thus at last there was no opposition to the Pope chosen by the council, who was elected in 1417, and took the name of Martin V. 

These proceedings were creditable, but the treatment of Huss, the Bohemian disciple of Wycliffe, was not. He was brought to Constance with the promise of a safe conduct, but when he got there he was condemned and suffered death at the stake. Wycliffe was safely dead, but the council ordered his bones dug up and burnt. The supporters of the conciliar movement were anxious to free themselves from all suspicion of unorthodoxy.

The Council of Constance had healed the schism, but it had hoped to do much more, and to substitute a constitutional monarchy for the papal absolutism. Martin V had made many promises before his election; some he kept, some he broke. He had assented to the decree that a council should be summoned every seven years, and to this decree he remained obedient. 

The Council of Constance having been dissolved in 1417, a new council, which proved of no importance, was summoned in 1424; then, in 1431, another was convoked to meet at Basel. Martin V died just at this moment, and his successor Eugenius IV was, throughout his pontificate, in bitter conflict with the reformers who controlled the council. 

He dissolved the council, but it refused to consider itself dissolved; in 1433 he gave way for a time, but in 1437 he dissolved it again. Nevertheless it remained in session till 1448, by which time it was obvious to all that the Pope had won a complete triumph.

 In 1439 the council had alienated sympathy by declaring the Pope deposed and electing an antipope (the last in history), who, however, resigned almost immediately. In the same year Eugenius IV won prestige by holding a council of his own at Ferrara, where the Greek Church, in desperate fear of the Turks, made a nominal submission to Rome. The papacy thus emerged politically triumphant, but with very greatly diminished power of inspiring moral reverence. 

john wycliffe contributions

Wycliffe (ca. 1320-84) illustrates, by his life and doctrine, the diminished authority of the papacy in the fourteenth century. Unlike the earlier schoolmen, he was a secular priest, not a monk or friar. He had a great reputation in Oxford, where he became a doctor of theology in 1372. For a short time he was Master of Balliol. 

He was the last of the important Oxford scholastics. As a philosopher, he was not progressive; he was a realist, and a Platonist rather than an Aristotelian. He held that God's decrees are not arbitrary, as some maintained; the actual world is not one among possible worlds, but is the only possible world, since God is bound to choose what is best. 

All this is not what makes him interesting, nor does it seem to have been what most interested him, for he retired from Oxford to the life of a country clergyman. During the last ten years of his life he was the parish priest of Lutterworth, by crown appointment. He continued, however, to lecture at Oxford. 

Wycliffe is remarkable for the extreme slowness of his development. In 1372, when his age was fifty or more, he was still orthodox; it was only after this date, apparently, that he became heretical. 

He seems to have been driven into heresy entirely by the strength of his moral feelings  his sympathy with the poor, and his horror of rich worldly ecclesiastics. At first his attack on the papacy was only political and moral, not doctrinal; it was only gradually that he was driven into wider revolt. 

how did john Wycliffe contribute to the reformation

Wycliffe's departure from orthodoxy began in 1376 with a course of lectures at Oxford "On Civil Dominion." He advanced the theory that righteousness alone gives the title to dominion and property; that unrighteous clergy have no such title; and that the decision as to whether an ecclesiastic should retain his property or not ought to be taken by the civil power. He taught, further, that property is the result of sin; Christ and the Apostles had no property, and the clergy ought to have none. 

These doctrines offended all clerics except the friars. The English government, however, favoured them, for the Pope drew a huge tribute from England, and the doctrine that money should not be sent out of England to the Pope was a convenient one. 

This was especially the case while the Pope was subservient to France, and England was at war with France. John of Gaunt, who held power during the minority of Richard II, befriended Wycliffe as long as possible. Gregory XI, on the other hand, condemned eighteen theses in Wycliffe's lectures, saying that they were derived from Marsiglio of Padua. Wycliffe was summoned to appear for trial before a tribunal of bishops, but the queen and the mob protected him, while the University of Oxford refused to admit the Pope's jurisdiction over its teachers. (Even in those days, English universities believed in academic freedom.) 

Meanwhile Wycliffe continued, during 1378 and 1379, to write learned treatises, maintaining that the king is God's vicar, and that bishops are subject to him. When the great schism came, he went further than before, branding the Pope as Antichrist, and saying that acceptance of the Donation of Constantine had made all subsequent popes apostates. 

He translated the Vulgate into English, and established "poor priests," who were secular. (By this action he at last annoyed the friars.) He employed the "poor priests" as itinerant preachers, whose mission was especially to the poor. At last, in attacking sacerdotal power, he was led to deny transubstantiation, which he called a deceit and a blasphemous folly. At this point, John of Gaunt ordered him to be silent. 

The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler, made matters more difficult for Wycliffe. There is no evidence that he actively encouraged it, but, unlike Luther in similar circumstances, he refrained from condemning it. John Ball, the Socialist unfrocked priest who was one of the leaders, admired Wycliffe, which was embarrassing.

But as he had been excommunicated in 1366, when Wycliffe was still orthodox, he must have arrived independently at his opinions. Wycliffe's communistic opinions, though no doubt the "poor priests" disseminated them, were, by him, only stated in Latin, so that at first hand they were inaccessible to peasants. 

It is surprising that Wycliffe did not suffer more than he did for his opinions and his democratic activities. The University of Oxford defended him against the bishops as long as possible. When the House of Lords condemned his itinerant preachers, the House of Commons refused to concur.

 No doubt trouble would have accumulated if he had lived longer, but when he died in 1384 he had not yet been formally condemned. He was buried at Lutterworth, where he died, and his bones were left in peace until the Council of Constance had them dug up and burnt. 

His followers in England, the Lollards, were severely persecuted and practically stamped out. But owing to the fact that Richard II's wife was a Bohemian, his doctrines became known in Bohemia, where Huss was his disciple; and in Bohemia, in spite of persecution, they survived until the Reformation. In England, although driven underground, the revolt against the papacy remained in men's thoughts, and prepared the soil for Protestantism.

Decline of the papacy cause

 During the fifteenth century, various other causes were added to the decline of the papacy to produce a very rapid change, both political and cultural. Gunpowder strengthened central governments at the expense of the feudal nobility. In France and England, Louis XI and Edward IV allied themselves with the rich middle class, who helped them to quell aristocratic anarchy.

 Italy, until the last years of the century, was fairly free from Northern armies, and advanced rapidly both in wealth and culture. The new culture was essentially pagan, admiring Greece and Rome, and despising the Middle Ages. 

Architecture and literary style were adapted to ancient models. When Constantinople, the last survival of antiquity, was captured by the Turks, Greek refugees in Italy were welcomed by humanists. Vasco da Gama and Columbus enlarged the world, and Copernicus enlarged the heavens. 

The Donation of Constantine was rejected as a fable, and overwhelmed with scholarly    derision. By the help of the Byzantines, Plato came to be known, not only in Neoplatonic and Augustinian versions, but at first hand. This sublunary sphere appeared no  longer as a vale of tears, a place of painful pilgrimage to another world, but as affording opportunity for pagan delights, for fame and beauty and adventure. The long centuries of asceticism were forgotten in a riot of art and poetry and pleasure. 

Even in Italy, it is true, the Middle Ages did not die without a struggle; Savonarola and Leonardo were born in the same year. But in the main the old terrors had ceased to be terrifying, and the new liberty of the spirit was found intoxicating. The intoxication could not last, but for the moment it shut out fear. In this moment of joyful liberation the modern world was born. 


A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell


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Philosophical Texts, vol. 3: Mind and Knowledge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002

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