Prior to the 16th century, the Catholic Church was the most powerful institution in Europe. During this time period the church played an important role in everyone's life, because the Catholic Church was very wealthy and the largest landowner. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church was called the pope. The word pope means “papa” in Latin. During the Renaissance period the pope was not as important as he is today. At the time he was thought of as the head of the church, and he was not considered to be the final word on religious matters. As a result, church councils believed that they could over-rule the pope. Unfortunately, many of the popes that ruled during this time were not interested in spiritual matters, but instead were only interested in administering their vast land holdings.
During the Renaissance, the “papacy” referred to the office of the pope as well as the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. The papal central government was called the curia, and the curia was led by the church cardinals, which is the second highest position in the church. The cardinals and the pope lived in palaces. They also lived lavish lifestyles, and corruption was common. Consequently, the church was under sharp criticism from critics like John Wycliffe who did not like paying papal taxes so that the hierarchy of the church could live lavish lifestyles. None of the popes were interested in reform because they did not want to give up living like kings. Instead, they put the troublemakers on trial and administered punishment against their critics.
At the end of the 14th century a new problem developed, the church was in crisis because of the growing power of the French government and their king. As a result, eight popes from 1309-77 reigned from Avignon, France. Many of these popes had little regard for spiritual matters. Then in 1377, Pope Gregory XI startled everyone when he moved the papacy back to Rome, but he soon died. Soon afterward riots broke out across Rome as the citizens demanded that the papacy stay in Rome. They also demanded that an Italian to be chosen pope. Before long, the cardinals elected Urban VI who was from Naples, Italy, but he also had close ties with France. Then things went crazy three weeks later when the cardinals announced that the election of Pope Urban VI was invalid because they had elected him while under the threat of unruly mobs. They quickly elected another pope, Clement VII. Now there were two popes. For 39 years, from 1378 to 1417, both men claimed to be the head of the Catholic Church. Consequently, the church became deeply divided by what became known as the Great Schism.
Clement VII soon moved to Avignon where he gained support of western Europe. At the same time Urban VI stayed in Rome where central Europe rallied behind him. Finally, the professors at the University of Paris called for a council to solve the problem of two leaders. In 1409 they met in Pisa, Italy, and quickly declared both popes heretics. They also elected a third pope named Alexander V. There were now three popes. Finally, the king of Germany, Sigismund, summoned the Council of Constance. The Council declared that their authority was greater than the popes. They responded by deposing two of the popes and then the third resigned. Then they elected an Italian cardinal named Martin V(1417-1431), and the Great Schism was over. However, not before the Schism did an amazing amount of damage to the churches reputation.