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Papal Resignations -- A Historian's Take

February 11th, 2013 | 19 min read

By Kevin White

Pope Benedict caught the whole world off-guard this morning. At the end of the consistory of the College of Cardinals, he announced his resignation as bishop of Rome, effective on the evening of February 28. It was a true surprise announcement, given the lack of advance leaks and the general consternation that has greeted it. So far the prize for most dramatic headline seems to be the one from the daily Vatican press packet: "Pope Renounces Papal Throne". Which reads like a line from a Medieval history textbook.

As a historian, and one whose work covers part of the Middle Ages, Pope Benedict's resignation was equal parts surprising and fascinating. As one friend of mine put it, the last time something like this happened, a Christian Emperor sat in Constantinople, Christopher Columbus wasn't born yet, and Dante was still writing the Divine Comedy. But to really get at the historical importance of today's headlines, a quick breaking-news church history sketch is in order.

English: Pope Benedict XVI during general audition English: Pope Benedict XVI during general audition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The History of Papal Resignations

There are roughly three relevant historical precedents for Pope Benedict's resignation: Benedict IX (1045), Celestine V (1294), and Gregory XII (1415). Each case was quite the mess, and each presents a different case from today's news and from each other.

Benedict IX was pope near the end of a very turbulent era for the See of Rome. In the early 11th century, two Italian noble families vied for control of the papacy: the Crescentians and the Tusculans. Benedict IX was set up as pope by the Tusculans in 1032. He was, by most accounts, a violent and dissolute man. His resignation in 1045 was part of a revolving-door in his pontificate, where he was forced out (1044), restored (March 1045), resigned irregularly in favor of a relative (May 1045), and managed to resume office (1047) before being deposed for good (1048) at the behest of a very annoyed Emperor. (Check out the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, by J.N.D. Kelly. It manages to give a clear and concise account of that convoluted story.)

The instability and corruption in the papal office, especially the turbulence of the reigns of Benedict and his rivals, led to the loss of moral authority and the imposition of reformist (and pro-German) popes by the Holy Roman Emperors. The earlier scandals and the effective subordination of the papacy to the Emperors led to the Gregorian Reform, which marked the beginning of the "monarchical" medieval papacy. Pope Gregory VII claimed great powers to restore the independence of the See and to root out abuses and corruption. These reforms had both good fruits (the reduction of simony) and bad fruits (entrenchment of clerical celibacy, inflated claims of papal power).

Pope Celestine V, by contrast, was selected for great reputation for holiness. In the summer of 1294, the papacy had been vacant for over two years due to deadlock within the College of Cardinals. An 85-year-old Italian hermit named Pietro del Morrone came to the attention of the cardinals, in part for his writings criticizing their indecisiveness. In part, supporters hoped that such a bold appointment of a spiritual man would revitalize the papacy. Somehow, the cardinals persuaded the very reluctant hermit to accept the election, and he took the name Celestine. His accession was received in many circles with romantic, even millenarian, hopes.

But his rule was short lived. He was overwhelmed by the demands of office and excessively dependent on his advisers. In distress, he sought the advice of Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who through a set of dubious legal precedents convinced Celestine that abdication was an option. Relieved, Celestine renounced the papacy in December 1294 and Caetani promptly became Pope Boniface VIII. Given the controversy that surrounded both of their actions, Boniface feared that Celestine could be set up as a rival. He ultimately imprisoned his predecessor, and Celestine died in captivity. Among other consequences, these events led Dante to portray Celestine as leading the crowds of the indecisive outside the gates of hell and Boniface as having a suitable place reserved inside those gates.

Finally, Pope Gregory XII was one of the three rival popes at the end of the Papal Schism. One of his rivals, styled John XXIII, called a council in Constance in 1414 as a final attempt to resolve the split. Unlike the previous attempt at Pisa, this time the Emperor and other major political and church players were ready to see it through. The council soon decided on a place to secure either the resignation or the broadly-recognized deposition of all claimants, to clear the decks for the election of an undisputed pope. John, who initially agreed in principle to the scheme, did not take long to quarrel with the council. He fled and the council deposed him in May 1415. The council then turned its attention to Gregory XII, of the Roman line of papal claimants. His base of support greatly reduced, he agreed to reaffirm the calling of the council, submit to it, and resign his papal claim in July 1415. He was restored as a cardinal but died before the next conclave. The final claimant, named Benedict XIII, fled to an isolated fortress that same year. The supporters of the Council of Constance gained the support of Benedict's remaining protectors and deposed him in 1417. The Council of Constance thus ended the Papal Schism and reestablished a single, undisputed papal line. The extremity of the situation overrode the legally questionable nature of its means. The full legal and theological implications of that council's actions are still disputed today.

Unprecedented? Or Precedent-Setting?

So is Pope Benedict XVI's resignation unprecedented? In one sense, it is. Of the three previous times a pope resigned, two were in cases of disputed or irregular claims to the office. Celestine provides a close analogy in age, and likewise cited physical infirmity, among other reasons. But the controversial nature of his action and the scandalous outcome makes it an uneasy precedent. Note also the lack of a clear protocol for how to treat an ex-pope. According to the Vatican Information Service press pack, he plans to go to the papal summer residence to finish some projects, then retire to the old monastery on the Vatican grounds. His ability to follow through with those plans will likely depend on the permission of his successor. Benedict will remain a bishop, since it takes a voluntary or penal defrocking to lose that status. What title as a bishop and whether he will revert to the honor of an inactive cardinal is probably likewise a decision that will fall on his successor. The canons for a bishop's resignation have not yet been applied to the most unusual see of Rome, and it is normally the pope who grants the title "Bishop Emeritus of [City]." A lot will probably depend on who is elected next, and what respect he has for Benedict.

In another important sense, this Benedict's resignation is not unprecedented. The precedents are centuries distant and unpleasant, but canon law seems to have already assimilated them. The Code of Canon Law of 1983 specifically allows for the possibility, in the article describing the office of Supreme Pontiff. It requires that the resignation be made freely and properly, but invests no one with the authority to receive the resignation and judge its validity. But if no one attempts to challenge Benedict's action, the needs of the moment will do the rest. The canon may be untested, and they are left to improvise the surrounding protocols, but it is the pre-existent law for the case. And remember, there was some talk of a papal resignation during  John Paul II’s sickness, even if the speculation proved to be a moot point.

Let’s not forget that this is not the first hint we had that Pope Benedict would consider resignation if his health and vigor made him unable to continue the work. Peter Seewald published Light of the World, a book-length interview of Benedict XVI, in 2010. In it, Benedict said that a pope who ceased to be physically, spiritually, and/or psychologically capable might even be obliged to resign his office. At the time, it sounded like a hypothetical aside. Hindsight perhaps now suggests otherwise.

A Better Take

The better frame for today's events is that they are precedent-setting. It remains to be seen, in future years, if Benedict's successors will follow his example. But Benedict may have just established a new, and revolutionary, norm for holding the papal office. It affirms that the pope is not primarily a personality, or a gifted human being, but an officeholder who serves for the good of the Roman Catholic Church.

Potentially, this could serve to reduce the personality-driven, almost celebrity-like attitude towards the papacy that developed among many under John Paul II. The office remains the same, but this practice could emphasize that the man holding it is simply the recipient of a sacred, but temporary, trust. That still represents an overly-bold view of the papacy in the mind of this little Presbyterian, but even such a one as me can recognize and appreciate improvement.

So recognize that Benedict's resignation is a historic event, whatever happens next. But the same precedents that highlight how surprising today's news is also show that this happened before. And remember also, that all the same pundits who will soon be totally certain who the next pope will be were caught just as off-guard as you were. Popes come and go, changes good and bad grind slowly. And in a couple centuries, historians will still have good fun debating what happened today.



[Edited to fix blatant copy-edit errors. Teaches me to rush to print without an editor...]

Kevin White