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Benedict: Far from the First Pope to Resign

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 11, 2013

Now that Pope Benedict has announced his resignation effective February 28th, it makes sense to review a little Catholic history. The resignation of a pope is a rare event but not an unprecedented one, as some early reports would have had us believe.

During the third and fourth centuries, two or three popes are thought to have resigned in periods of persecution and exile, in order to pave the way for successors, and at least one source suggests that, in the very early eleventh century, Pope John XVIII resigned to end his days as a monk, though this is not recorded elsewhere. Since that time, however, we have clear and reliable historical documentation for the resignation of four popes. Several other popes have also prepared conditional resignations, to be invoked in the event of incapacity, such as imprisonment by a hostile power. But the last of all the actual resignations occurred in 1415, long before it was possible for the whole world to follow the story as it happened.

All of the well-documented resignations took place in the latter part of the Middle Ages, between 1045 and 1415. The first was Pope Benedict IX (1032-1045), a very well-connected young man (nephew to both of the two previous popes) who was elected to the See of Peter at about the age of 20, during a period when the papacy was coveted by many politically influential families. Benedict IX was unfortunately ill-suited to his new role. Noted for his immoral lifestyle, he brought such disgrace upon the office that a rival faction set up an anti-pope. Eventually, the Pope’s desperate godfather, the deeply pious archpriest John Gratian, paid him a large sum of money to resign the papacy, which he did in 1045.

The result was that Gratian himself was elected Pope Gregory VI in 1045. However, because he had paid Benedict to resign, his election was tainted by simony, and the Council of Sutri pressed Gregory, in his turn, to resign for the good of the Church in 1046. Pope Clement II was then elected, but he died within a year, and the former Pope Benedict IX seized Rome and took up the papacy again! By 1048, however, Pope Damasus II was elected and Benedict was driven out of Rome. Unfortunately, Damasus died of malaria after just 23 days. Stability did not return to the papacy until the election of Pope St. Leo IX (1049-1054).

The first two well-documented papal resignations, then, occurred in connection with the problems posed by Benedict IX. The last resignation, by Gregory XII in 1415, also occurred in a period of great confusion, the period called the Western Schism. This grew out of the Avignon Papacy, during which the popes, under the excessive influence of the King of France, administered the Church not from Rome but from Avignon. Among others, St. Catherine of Siena urged Pope Gregory XI to end the scandal of residing in Avignon and to return to Rome, which he finally did. Unfortunately, he died soon thereafter, in 1378. Hence the Church was divided into two factions, those who wanted the papacy in Rome and those who favored Avignon.

The College of Cardinals in Rome elected Pope Urban VI in April 1378. Because the people of Rome had exerted such pressure on the cardinals, they met a second time with the same outcome, in the hope of removing all reasonable doubt as to the validity of the election. Nonetheless, Urban quickly made himself unpopular, and so some of the cardinals, especially those who wanted the papacy to return to Avignon, rebelled against Urban and elected an anti-pope, Clement VII. The circumstances surrounding both of these elections were sufficiently confusing that even some future saints were divided in their allegiance, though the Church was split mainly along political lines, with France and her allies supporting the imposter.

During the years of the Schism, Urban VI was succeeded by Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII. Meanwhile, the anti-pope Clement was succeeded by the anti-pope Benedict XIII. The Council of Pisa, attempting to heal the rift in 1409, succeeded only in electing another anti-pope, John XXIII, since the true pope had not resigned. But Gregory XII worked with the Council of Constance in 1414, and it was arranged that Gregory would resign while John XXIII and Benedict XIII would (rightly) be declared illegitimate. This paved the way for an election which all could recognize, and Martin V became pope. Thus Gregory XII, like Gregory VI, ultimately resigned in order to restore unity to the Church.

The only documented case of a resignation comparable to what has been announced by Pope Benedict XVI in our own time was that of Pope Saint Celestine V (Pietro di Murrone). Pietro was called to the monastic life, and often lived as a hermit, emphasizing prayer and ascetical practices. Like many holy men, he inspired others, and so became responsible for the foundation of some 36 monasteries. At age 79, again living as a simple hermit with no desire for office of any kind, Pietro was suddenly elected pope two years after the death of Nicholas IV.

He was completely unsuited to the task, including the task of managing all the rival interests among the Cardinals. In fact, Celestine V seems to have paved the way for the Avignon papacy by creating a disproportionate number of French cardinals. He himself appears to have realized his failings; above all, he desired a life of prayer and he feared for his soul. Therefore he resigned the papacy in 1295 after some five months in office. He was followed by Pope Boniface VIII, who succeeded (for the most part) in forcibly keeping the old hermit in custody until the end of his life, lest he be used by those who opposed the new pope.

It is doubtful that the same fate will befall Benedict XVI. Despite countless media mistakes in Catholic coverage, the omnipresence of worldwide news media in the modern world will ultimately enable most people to understand what is really going on. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a serious counter-threat to Benedict’s successor that could somehow make a pawn of a retired Joseph Ratzinger. What is not hard to imagine, however, is constant efforts by the media to get the former pope’s opinion on everything his successor says and does. I suppose a new conspiracy theory or two will surface as well, perhaps providing new grist for the sede vacantist mill.

Indeed, one hopes that Pope Benedict XVI’s humility has not obscured his understanding of the uneasiness a papal resignation can create, including the uneasiness of having a former pope still living during the pontificate of his successor. It is perhaps indicative of this perception that Benedict apparently plans to spend the rest of his life in monastic seclusion. He may devote himself quietly to theological study—and yet we ought not to expect publication, which could conceivably create a conflict with his successor, at least in the minds of those looking for division and fomenting doubt. Clearly, trust in the Holy Spirit is essential. As history suggests, there is no easy way out for a pope.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 13, 2013 7:29 AM ET USA

    Cokie Roberts expressed universal "shock" on the part of the media, but the resignation should have been anticipated. Perhaps the repercussions related to the "Vatileaks" scandal expedited things. His radical Motu Proprio and the controversial reform of the liturgical translation of the Mass certainly merited him animosity among progressives. His caretaker role proved to have a bit more "punch" than was anticipated. Now he may "flee, be silent, and pray" as did the desert fathers. Oremus.

  • Posted by: atila9565 - Feb. 11, 2013 8:07 PM ET USA

    It is superfluous to reiterate that Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most (if not THE most) important theologian of our time. And his writings show that he knows quite a bit about Ecclesiology. So, we can rest assured that he knows exactly what he is doing, and all the consequences that are to unfold from his resignation, including ecumenical ones.

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