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The Avignon Papacy

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Definition of the Avignon Papacy:

The term "Avignon Papacy" refers to the Catholic papacy during the period 1309-1377, when the popes lived in and operated out of Avignon, France, instead of their traditional home in Rome.

Also known as:

The Babylon Captivity (a reference to the forced detention of Jews in Babylonia c. 598 B.C.E.)

Origins of the Avignon Papacy:

Philip IV of France was instrumental in securing the election of Clement V, a Frenchman, to the papacy in 1305. This was an unpopular outcome in Rome, where factionalism made Clement's life as pope stressful. To escape the oppressive atmosphere, in 1309 Clement chose to move the papal capital to Avignon, which was the property of papal vassals at that time.

The French Nature of the Avignon Papacy:

The majority of the men that Clement V appointed as cardinals were French; and since the cardinals elected the pope, this meant that future popes were likely to be French, as well. All seven of the Avignonese popes and 111 of the 134 cardinals created during the Avignon papacy were French. Although the Avignonese popes were able to maintain a measure of independence, the French kings did exert some influence from time to time, and the appearance of French influence on the papacy, whether real or not, was undeniable.

The Avignonese Popes:

    1305-1314: Clement V
    1316-1334: John XXII
    1334-1342: Benedict XII
    1342-1352: Clement VI
    1352-1362: Innocent VI
    1362-1370: Urban V
    1370-1378: Gregory XI

Achievements of the Avignon Papacy:

The popes were not idle during their time in France. Some of them made sincere efforts to improve the situation of the Catholic Church and to achieve peace in Christendom. Among their achievements:

  • The administrative offices and other agencies of the papacy were extensively, and effectively, reorganized and centralized.
  • Missionary enterprises were expanded; ultimately, they would reach as far as China.
  • University education was promoted.
  • The College of Cardinals began to strengthen their role in the government of church affairs.
  • Attempts were made to settle secular conflicts.

The Avignon Papacy's Poor Reputation:

The Avignon popes were not as much under the control of the French kings as it has been charged (or as the kings would have liked). However, some popes did bow to royal pressure, as Clement V did to a degree in the matter of the Templars. And although Avignon belonged to the papacy (it was purchased from papal vassals in 1348), there was nevertheless the perception that it belonged to France, and that the popes were therefore beholden to the French Crown for their livelihoods.

In addition, the Papal States in Italy now had to answer to French authorities.

Italian interests in the papacy had in past centuries resulted in just as much corruption as in Avignon, if not more so, but this did not stop Italians from attacking the Avignon popes with fervor. One particularly vociferous critic was Petrarch, who had spent spent most of his childhood in Avignon and, after taking minor orders, was to spend more time there in clerical service. In a famous letter to a friend, he described Avignon as the "Babylon of the West," a sentiment that took hold in the imagination of future scholars.

The End of the Avignon Papacy:

Both Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden are credited with persuading Pope Gregory XI to return the See to Rome. This he did on Jan. 17, 1377. But Gregory's stay in Rome was plagued with hostilities, and he seriously considered returning to Avignon. Before he could make any move, however, he died in March, 1378. The Avignon Papacy had officially ended.

Repercussions of the Avignon Papacy:

When Gregory XI moved the See back to Rome, he did so over the objections of the cardinals in France. The man elected to succeed him, Urban VI, was so hostile to the cardinals that 13 of them met to choose another pope, who, far from replacing Urban, could only stand in opposition to him. Thus began the Western Schism (a.k.a. the Great Schism), in which two popes and two papal curias existed simultaneously for another four decades.

The bad reputation of the Avignon administration, whether deserved or not, would damage the prestige of the papacy. Many Christians were already facing crises of faith thanks to the problems encountered during and after the Black Death. The gulf between the Catholic Church and lay Christians seeking spiritual guidance would only widen.

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