top of page

The Three Popes

By Luke Lancaster

Some people have a historical objection to the papacy that throws many Catholics for a loop. They will argue that the papacy, which claims to have an unbroken lineage of succession of Popes from St. Peter, was broken during the 14th and 15th centuries. This is known as the "Western Schism" or the period of "Three Popes." The claim is that there were three men all claiming to be the correct successor to St. Peter at once, and that this disproves the notion of an unbroken lineage of successors to St. Peter. Let's analyze this.


The papacy was based in Rome, Italy for centuries until, for a 70 year period, it went to Avignon, France. Once the papacy finally returned home in Rome, however, the people of Italy were afraid that the papacy would return to Avignon again. So, when the Pope died, the people pushed the congregation of Cardinals to elect an Italian as Pope. That way, the papacy would remain in Rome. The Cardinals did just that, and elected Urban VI as Pope.

The First Crazy Complication

Pope Urban VI acted in ways that were not liked by the Cardinals, so, out of buyers remorse, a particular segment of Cardinals disobediently elected their own pope - Clement VII. This new pope became an anti-pope as soon as he was elected, for Urban VI was still functioning as the validly elected Pope. The segment of Cardinals who elected the anti-pope justified their actions by claiming that they were filled with fear when they elected Urban VI. For the Italian people pressured them to elect an Italian. This, it was claimed, made the election of Urban invalid. It was an excuse to get rid of Urban VI, though, for his election was procedurally valid. If Urban had been more liked, then anti-pope Clement would never have been elected. Fear does not undo a valid election. Consider if a voter in a USA election for president was under great anxiety when filling out his ballot. Once the ballot is sent and the votes are tallied - the next president is chosen - regardless of the person's fearfulness.

More Complications

To make matters worse, Cardinals who supported the legitimate papal successor and the illegitimate one formed their own group and elected another anti-pope - Alexander V. This meeting by a group of Cardinals was known as the council of Pisa, and they acted without the authorization of the true Pope. Thus, the council of illegitimate, and another anti-pope was added to the mix. At this point, there were three popes all claiming to be the true papal successor - one True Pope and the two False popes. Many people throughout the Roman empire had no idea which pope was the correct one, and this craziness went on for forty years.


Finally, since the situation of crazy Cardinals could not be rectified, the Council of Constance was called. The true Pope stepped down, and a new Pope was elected - Martin V. The Western Schism ended, and Europe could know clearly the Pope to be followed. As seen, there were not three validly elected Popes at one time. The succession of the papal office from St. Peter remained intact the entire time. There was craziness and confusion throughout Europe, certainly, but it was due to the stupidity of the 'buyers-remorse' Cardinals! This historical objection to the papacy can safely be thrown away.

bottom of page