The Antipope Benedict XIII, Alias “El Papa Luna”

Gregory DiPippo

Today marks the sixth centennial of the death of one of the strangest characters in the long, strange history of the papacy, the Spanish antipope who was known in his obedience as Benedict XIII. (He is not to be confused with the legitimate Benedict XIII, who was elected just over three centuries later.) He was a major protagonist of one of the very complicated affair known as the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), which we can only explain very summarily here.

From 1309-77, the Popes had lived in the French city of Avignon, much to the detriment, both spiritual and temporal, of the Eternal City. Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome in 1377, but died a year later; during the conclave to choose his successor, a mob gathered outside the building where it was being held, chanting “We want a Roman, or at least an Italian!”

In the midst of this and various other disorders, and a conclave split between French and Italian factions, Cardinal Pedro de Luna proposed as a candidate the archbishop of Bari, Bartolomeo Prignano, who was known to all as a saintly and learned man. The latter was thus elected with the name Urban VI on April 8, 1378, the last Pope to be chosen from outside the College of Cardinals.

Almost immediately, however, the new Pope underwent a personality change so violent, and marked by such an extraordinary lack of prudence and charity, that many believed his election had somehow driven him insane. St Catherine of Siena, famous inter alia as peacemaker, was moved by reports of his behavior to write to him, urging him to behave in a manner more becoming the Father of Christendom.

Within a few months, he had so alienated most of the cardinals that they withdrew to Fondi, 60 miles southeast of Rome. Having persuaded themselves (not wholly in good faith) that they had elected Urban not just in the midst of the Roman mob, but in fear of it, they declared the election null for this reason, and then choose one of their company, Robert of Geneva, to replace him, the beginning of the Great Schism of the West. After failing to seize control of Rome militarily, the new “Pope”, calling himself Clement VII, withdrew to France, taking up residence in the palace in Avignon recently vacated by Gregory XI. Before long, the entire western Church was divided in its allegiance; not only were there two blocks of the major states, but within many individual ecclesiastical institutions, there was one party that backed the claim of Urban, and another that of Clement.

On the Roman side, Urban VI was succeeded in 1389 by a cardinal of his own creation, who took the name Boniface IX, followed by Innocent VII and Gregory XII, while on the Avignon side, Clement VII died in 1394, and was succeeded by none other than Cardinal de Luna, who called himself Benedict XIII.

(A statue of “Benedict XIII” in his native place, Peñiscola, on the coast of Spain, about 80 miles north of Valencia. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Valdavia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Each side had ardent supporters who could offer strong arguments on its behalf; most notably, one of the era’s greatest Saints, the Spanish Dominican Vincent Ferrer, never wavered from his conviction that the claim of Clement VII, and hence of Benedict XIII, was legitimate. But after three decades, the general climate of opinion throughout the Church had shifted in favor of the “via cessionis – the way of yielding”, meaning that the only way to resolve the schism was for both claimants to resign. And in 1415, the Roman Pope, Gregory XII, proffered his abdication to a council of cardinals and bishops gathered in the Swiss city of Constance.

Benedict XIII, however, refused to yield, even at the entreaties of St Vincent, who had long been a friend. In early 1416, therefore, the latter declared that although Benedict was indeed the rightful Pope, his obstinacy had made the healing of the schism impossible, and the faithful might therefore justly withdraw their allegiance from him. This proved the death blow to Benedict’s cause, and he was formally deposed by a decree of the council issued on July 26, 1417.

Disavowed by all but a handful of supporters, and chased out of Avignon, Benedict withdrew to his family’s castle on the Spanish coast, maintaining until his death at the age of 94 that he was still the legitimate Pope, and comparing his castle to Noah’s Ark, which only had eight people in it. In Spanish, he is often called “El Papa Luna” from his last name, a word which is also the origin of “lunatic.”

(The castle of Peñiscola. Image from Wikimedia Commons by ホセ・マヌエル, CC BY 3.0)

Here is an excerpt from the decree of deposition, issued by the Council of Constance on July 26, 1417.

“ ‘Pereat,’ inquit sanctus propheta, ‘memoria illius qui non est recordatus facere misericordiam et qui persecutus est hominem inopem et mendicum.’ Quanto magis pereat illius qui omnes homines et ecclesiam universalem persecutus est et turbavit, Petri de Luna, Benedicti XIII a nonnullis nuncupati, memoria. Qui quantum in Ecclesiam Dei et universum populum christianum peccaverit, schisma et divisionem Ecclesiae Dei fovens nutriens atque continuans: quantis quamque frequentibus devotis et humilibus regum principum et praelatorum precibus exhortationibus et requisitionibus charitative iuxta doctrinam evangelicam admonitus fuerit, ut pacem daret Ecclesiae et illius sanaret vulnera, et eius partes divisas in unam compaginem et corpus unum reficeret quemadmodum ipse iuraverat, eratque et diu fuit in sua potestate: quos tamen charitative corripientes nullatenus voluit exaudire, quot sint postmodum testes adhibiti; quibus etiam minime exauditis necesse fuit secundum praedictam Christi evangelicam doctrinam dicere Ecclesiae quam quia etiam non audivit habendus sit tamquam ethnicus et publicanus.


‘Let there perish’, says the holy prophet, ‘the memory of him who did not remember to show mercy, and who persecuted the poor and needy.’ (Ps. 108, 17) How much more should there perish the memory of Peter de Luna, called by some Benedict XIII, who persecuted and disturbed all men and the universal church? For, how greatly he has sinned against God’s church and the entire Christian people, fostering, nourishing and continuing the schism and division of God’s church; how ardent and frequent have been the devout and humble prayers, exhortations and requests of kings, princes and prelates with which he has been charitably warned, according to the teaching of the Gospel, to bring peace to the Church and heal its wounds, and to re-form its divided parts into one structure and one body, as he had sworn to do, and as was long within his power to do! And yet he was unwilling to charitably listen to their reproofs, however many were the persons afterwards sent to attest to him! And because he did not listen to them at all, it has been necessary, according to the aforesaid evangelical teaching of Christ, to say to the Church, since he has not listened even to her, that he should be considered as a heathen and a publican. (Matthew 18, 17)

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