Beginning in 1378, the Great Schism threatened the political and ecclesiastical power of the Church at its very foundation when two, later three, Bishops claimed to be the true Pontiff (Pope) concurrently. Urban VI was elected first and held office in Rome, but dissatisfaction prompted the Cardinals to elect Clement VII, who moved his Papal see to Avignon. The political implications and threats to the position of the Catholic Church, which wielded temporal as well as spiritual power, are obvious. Nations and rulers depended on Papal support for authority and success of their own rule.

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With two Popes each claiming legitimacy, countries had pick which side to support. This led to diplomatic issues and rivalries between nations recognizing different Papacies, as well as inherent uncertainty regarding whether the chosen side would prevail or not. Factions developed that threatened the ultimate power of the Church itself, and deteriorated even further when a third Pope was elected. While the political issue was resolved with the recognition of yet another pope, ecclesiastical issues remain to this day concerning apostolic succession, authority which stems in an unbroken chain from St. Peter. The Papal split potentially invalidated orders passed on through illegitimate successions and their progenies.

Both John Wycliff, an Englishman, and Jan Hus, a Czech, were Catholic clerics and early proponents of reformation ideology. They espoused beliefs that challenged the authority of the clergy, and especially the Pope, over daily and political life choices, as opposed to Biblical doctrine. They supported translating the Bible into the vernacular, doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation (that during Eucharist bread and wine transformed into Christ’s actual body and blood), and opposed selling of indulgences as a form of buying forgiveness and admission into Heaven. Thus they challenged the Church’s supremacy in temporal and spiritual matters.

Luther was a Catholic clergyman who strongly opposed the sale of indulgences as a deceptive practice meant to enrich the Church. He publicly preached against it and disseminated 95 theses denouncing it. Like Hus and Wycliff, he believed religious teachings should be accessible in the vernacular so that people could understand their worship services and beliefs more fully. Thus, Luther published a translation of the Bible and Mass in German. He advocated the authority of the Holy Scriptures over clerical pronouncements. This stance increased Biblical authority and denigrated Church power.

In addition, Luther believed that salvation came through faith only, not good works, as was accepted church-empowering doctrine of the period. Luther organized his church’s liturgy to include German hymn-singing and partaking by the congregation of both bread and wine during Eucharist, in essence making his services worshipper-friendly, thereby diminishing the Church’s mystique and hold over the laity. Yet Luther maintained belief that the host and wine were body and blood, termed sacramental union, unlike other reformers.

Excommunication in Catholicism is a status or separation of someone who has violated certain church doctrines from access to ecclesiastic beneficial processes, such as the Sacraments. In practical terms for medieval citizens, excommunication would prevent one from partaking in many aspects of society, including marriage and proper burial in consecrated ground. Denial of baptism, the Eucharist and extreme unction (last rights) would plague the conscience of any churchgoer raised to believe that such practices were necessary for eternal salvation, and bring stigma to oneself and one’s family.