One of the traditional attacks on the Catholic Church and its teaching authority is the historical fact that for a period of time there were two or even three popes at once. But is it really a historical fact? Was there ever a time when the Catholic Church had more than one pope reigning?
From the very earliest centuries there have been antipopes–men who claimed to be pope but who in fact were not. One of them (the first one) is a saint, St. Hippolytus, who thought he was reigning in the early third century. Obviously St. Hippolytus reconciled with the church, or we would never refer to him as a saint.
The most famous period during which we had antipopes is called The Great Schism, when there were first two claimants of papal authority and then a third, supposedly reigning between the years 1378 and 1417. It was a terrible time in church history because it seemed as though each person claiming to be pope had a valid argument while only one did.
Here is the background: Popes lived in Avignon, France, for a period of seventy years until Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome. After his death in 1378, the election held to determine his successor was violently interrupted by citizens of Rome. The Romans wanted to make sure an Italian was elected so that the new pope would stay in Rome, where he belonged. The cardinal electors were frightened by the mobs, so they quickly elected an elderly Italian cardinal who took the name Urban VI. Because Urban’s reign was so unsatisfactory and divisive, historians believe a crisis was created. Many of the cardinals, mostly French, retreated to Agnani and elected a second pope, Clement VII, to replace him. Clement then became the first antipope of The Great Schism. (Because he was not considered to be a legally elected pope, two centuries later a second Pope Clement VII was legally elected.)
The appearance of two popes became a confusing matter because both sides seemed to have sound arguments. Different countries aligned themselves with the different popes. There were even cases in which very holy people who were later canonized saints aligned themselves with the opposite papal claimants.
Things got worse before they got better. In 1409, cardinals from both sides decided to call a general council to resolve the problem. The Council of Pisa deposed both claimants to the papal throne and elected a third pope, Alexander V. The two other claimants refused to step down and three men now claimed to be pope.
With the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, another council was convened, the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The council, backed by the authority of the emperor, deposed the antipope from the Council of Pisa. Antipope Clement VII’s successor, the antipope Benedict XIII, refused to step down and until his death claimed the papacy. The legally elected pope, Gregory XII, successor to Urban VI, graciously resigned to make way for an undisputed pope. The third claimant, Antipope John XXIII, absconded to Germany but was brought back, tried for various crimes and imprisoned for some time. (Antipope John XXIII is listed in the biographies of the popes of the Papal Artifacts website and may be viewed on page five of the papal histories.) Pope Gregory XII died three weeks before the Council of Constance elected Pope Martin V, ending the schism.
This is a very brief history of a much more complex and tragic time in the Catholic Church, but the point we need to take from this story is there never really were three popes. Theologians and historians alike recognize only one line of claimants to the papal throne, and that is the line starting with Urban VI and ending with Gregory XII. All the others were simple people who claimed to be pope when in fact they were not. Even if it was confusing and there were countries and saints who disagreed, still there was only one authentic pope at any given time.