There was really only one pope
I wrote these series of articles (see menu sidebar to the left) as a Catholic for Catholics, but I no longer accept Catholic teaching as the authoritative source of truth.I have not attempted to align these articles with my current views.
To explain what happened in the 1300's when there were supposedly three popes. Of course, there was really only one true pope and two false popes — but how to know which was which?
Critics of the claims of Catholicism often use the historical incident of the three Popes as evidence that the claims of the Catholic Church are false. But this claim is based on a misunderstanding of the historical events.
The way this argument is usually presented, it appears that there was a time when there was three Popes. The problem with this argument is that the Church doesn't think there were three Popes and it is easy to see why upon careful examination of the facts.
An example of the kind of thing that occurred is as follows. If I decided to appoint you as Pope, and the existing Pope refused to resign upon hearing about it, then there would be two Popes, right? Of course not. This is because I have not followed the proper protocol in appointing a Pope. The problem with this action of mine is that I am not authorized to appoint Popes at all.
This is the kind of thing that happened. The council that elects the Pope decided to elect a second Pope after they had already elected a Pope. They did this because they didn't like the policies of the first Pope. But this council didn't depose the first Pope nor did it have the authority to do so if it had wished to.
Here's the sequence of events:
In 1059, Pope Nicholas II (1059–1061) decreed that a council of high church officials and advisors known as the College of Cardinals (Curia) would choose new Popes. This practice has continued to this day.
In 1309 the papacy moved to Avignon, France. The French began to have a substantial influence in the College of Cardinals.
In 1377, Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370–1378) moved the papacy from Avignon, France (where it had been located for 68 years) back to Rome.
In 1378, Pope Gregory XI died. The College of Cardinals in Rome elected an Italian archbishop as Pope. This was Pope Urban VI (r. 1378–1389).
Immediately upon being elected, Pope Urban VI announced that he was going to reform the College of Cardinals. Most of them were French and they were very unhappy with this plan. Thirteen of these Cardinals formed their own conclave and elected a second Pope. This was Pope Clement VII who was a false Pope and was the cousin of the French king. There were now supposedly "two Popes," but in reality Pope Urban VI was still the real Pope and Pope Clement VII was an imposter. This is called the "Great Schism."
The problem with the College of Cardinal's action was that there was already a Pope, so they had no authority to elect a new Pope. They could only elect another Pope when the current Pope resigned, was deposed, or died.
Some European countries supported one Pope, and some supported the other. Both Popes claimed to be the true Pope.
The Conciliar Movement began. Supporters of this movement declared that a representative council had higher authority than the Pope.
To resolve the problem of having two Popes, cardinals from both Popes who supported the Conciliar Movement formed a council on their own authority in 1409. They deposed both Popes and elected a new Pope, Alexander V. But neither of the other Popes recognized their actions, so there was now three Popes. But in reality there was still only one real Pope and two false Popes.
The conflict was finally resolved in 1414 when the true Pope and the two false Popes agreed to step down. A council was formed which was recognized by the true Pope, Gregory XII. This council elected a new Pope, Martin V (r. 1417–1431).
The problem with the Conciliar Movement was that the supporters believed that a council had higher authority than the Pope and that the Pope must obey the decisions of a council. The Conciliar Movement ended in 1449 with the collapse of the Council of Basel. In 1460, Pope Pius II (r. 1458–1464) issued a papal bull which condemned appeals to councils.
The proper relationship between councils and the Pope is that they must work in harmony. The final authority rests with the Pope and he can override the decisions of a council. The best decisions are those made in which the Pope and the council are in complete harmony.