Good popes, bad popes – 70 years in Avignon

Features Msgr John Broadbent2 October 2012 Last issue, we reached the point where the French pope Clement V (1305-1314) had moved the papacy to Avignon, starting the 70 years of…


Msgr John Broadbent
2 October 2012

Good popes, bad popes - 70 years in Avignon Archdiocese of WellingtonLast issue, we reached the point where the French pope Clement V (1305-1314) had moved the papacy to Avignon, starting the 70 years of so-called ‘Babylonian captivity of the papacy’.

Clement died in 1314, leaving a papal treasury depleted from excessive personal use.

The next in line
The line of French popes continued with John XXII (1316-34). Aged 72, John was considered a stop-gap pope.

However, he lived to be 89 and amazed all by his resilience and financial ability, getting the papal treasury out of debt and taxing all ecclesiastical offices heavily.

All of his appointments to the College of Cardinals were French except for one Spaniard and four Romans.

He was accused of excessive nepotism, bestowing money, gifts, and church offices on relatives and friends.

His claim to fame rested on being one of the few popes accused of heresy. Between 1331 and 1332, he delivered four sermons which he would live to rue.

In them he claimed the saints would not see God face to face until after the final judgement, contrary to the traditional teaching that they receive the Beatific Vision immediately after death.

The saints could only before the Final Judgement contemplate the humanity rather than the divinity of Christ.

The greatest Catholic university of the time – Paris – condemned these views in 1333, and John’s enemies called for a General Council to condemn him.

On his deathbed, in the presence of the cardinals, John said that saints see God face to face as clearly as their conditions allow.

Appointing bishops
Benedict XII (1335-42) succeeded him and spelt out more clearly what John XXII had taught, that all bishops must be appointed by the pope.

Already, the papacy had a big say in appointments.

The electors of a bishop (usually the canons of the cathedral chapter), sometimes in the presence of the king, were presided over by the papal legate.

If there was not a majority of votes, the legate could choose the winning candidate by what was called the ‘maior et sanior pars’ (the more stable majority), or, usually, whoever the pope wanted.

Clement VI (1342-52) is credited with the theological groundwork for the doctrine of indulgences that would figure so largely in the Protestant Reformation some two centuries later.

He issued a bull, Unigenitus, which defined for the Holy Year of 1350 the treasury of merits. This vast reserve of merit built up by Christ and the saints could be applied to individuals, upon the recitation of certain prayers and the performance of certain spiritual works, to offset the burden of sin.

The means by which these merits were applied came eventually to be called indulgences.
Unfortunately, Clement VI’s life imitated that of a worldly prince as did that of several other Avignon popes.

His court was bathed in luxuries and punctuated by sumptuous banquets and grand festivities.

Rome was in the grip of warring factions, providing a good excuse for the popes to not return despite pleas from the city – the popes were a great source of income!

A return to Rome
Blessed Urban V (1362-70), a very spiritual man, reduced the luxury of the court and was determined to return to Rome, where he lived for three years against the wishes of his French cardinals and the curia.

Unrest in Italy forced him back to Avignon where he died after two months.

Spurred on by St Catherine of Siena, the last of the Avignon popes – Gregory XI (1370-78) – resolved to return to Rome. He did so after a long and tedious clearing-up in Avignon.

Gregory was in Rome for just a short time before his death. The election of his successor – Urban VI – would split the church.

The so-called Great Schism woud result in an antipope (Clement VII) being elected to Avignon.