With all the recent hype over the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many Catholics seem to be under the belief that prior to the nefarious machinations of he who must not be named and his ilk, the Catholic Church was a blissful paradise of ecclesiastical harmony.
The reality is that the first 1500 years of the Church were marked by chronic chaos. If anything, the Catholic Church has become a much more stable, unified body after the Reformation. Sadly that tends to be the case with human nature - we need an external enemy to unite us.
In the early days of the Church, the pagan Roman authorities were that enemy. When the Empire finally became Christian and the Church lost this common enemy, it created its own enemies with the first great schism: the Church of the East embraced Nestorianism, and the people of Syria, Palestine and Egypt embraced monophysitism. Rome and Constantinople subsequently succumbed to the natural antipathy between the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.
But it was the high middle ages that saw the greatest chaos for the western Latin church. After several centuries of Europe's feudal land barons appointing their own bishops, Pope Saint Gregory VII finally stood his ground against lay investiture in the 11th century. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV responded by invading Rome and installing anti-pope Clement III. This episode repeated itself fairly regularly over the next 500 years: the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (or the King of France) had a falling out, and the Empire (or France) responded by sacking Rome and installing an anti-pope.
These tensions climaxed in the relocation of the papal residence to Avignon in the 14th century followed by the Great Western Schism from 1378-1417, which saw up to 3 rival claimants to the See of Rome at the same time.
All in all there were 41 anti-popes in church history, all of them before the Reformation. The Reformation had the beneficial effect of diminishing the political importance of the Pope in Europe. Europe's kings no longer thought it worth the effort to install an anti-pope, and Rome finally enjoyed some peace and stability for the first time since 410 AD.
But now with the Catholic Church not only having survived the Reformation but thriving and easily winning back converts from Protestantism now that the internet has made it so easy for everyone to see how bogus the Reformation's claims were intellectually, the enemy seems to be up to his old tricks. The word "schism" is being tossed out, not by Lutherans, Baptists and Presbyterians, but by Catholics. And not by so-called "liberal" Catholics, but by self-professed "traditionalists" who believe they understand the Catholic faith better than the Vicar of Jesus Christ.
I would ask these people to think this through. The beauty of the Catholic Church is that we have one visible Supreme Pastor whom we can always count on to guide us toward eternity with Jesus Christ. The instant we cast doubt on our shepherd, we have effectively created an anti-pope. That anti-pope might just be each of our own selves for now, but keep this up and it could one day bring about a return to the "good old days" before the Reformation, with 3 or more different people each claiming to be the Bishop of Rome, and you may have no way of knowing which one is the true Pope. Don't go there. Don't go anywhere near there. Just obey the Successor of Saint Peter. Please.
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