Popes that have resigned – Precedents in history

History of the papacy

Fr Nicholas Schofield, CTS author and archivist for the archdiocese of Westminster, explains the fascinating history of papal resignations.

The Holy Father’s unexpected resignation means that the Church enters uncharted territory. Many decisions will now have to be carefully made about the procedures during the period of transition and the status and role of Pope Benedict after 28 February.

However, although this news will have stunned many, it is not completely unprecedented. Over the centuries a handful of popes have stepped down because they felt they could not, in all conscience, continue to effectively function in the Petrine Ministry. In some cases the evidence is ambiguous about what really happened.

According to the Liber Pontificalis, St Pontian (230-35) abdicated on 28 September 235, which happens to be the first precisely recorded date in papal history. He did this for a very good reason: he had been arrested and deported to a life of hard labour in Sardinia, where he died shortly afterwards. Eight centuries later we have the case of Benedict IX (1032-44, 1045, 1047-48), who was unique in having three spells as pope although his various departures from office were linked to the turbulent politics of the time.

Then there was Gregory XII (1406-15), who lived at the time of the Great Schism and was, at one stage, one of three claimants to the Throne of Peter. He abdicated in 1415 so that a new pope could be elected; the two antipopes, meanwhile, were deposed by the Council of Constance. It is interesting to see what happened to Angelo Correr (formerly Gregory XII): he was created Cardinal Bishop of Porto and Legate of the March of Ancona (a strategically important part of the Papal States). He died, as it turned out, before the new pope could be elected but he would have ranked next in precedence to him.

The most famous papal resignation, of course, was that of St Celestine V (1294). It is curiously appropriate, given recent events, that Pope Benedict declared a ‘Celestine Year’ three years ago to commemorate the 800th anniversary of his predecessor’s birth.

The future Celestine V (often referred to as St Peter Celestine) had joined the Benedictines and went on to discern a vocation as a hermit. Try as he might to live alone, others wanted to join his way of life and he soon attracted a community around him. This eventually became the Celestine Order.

Others things being equal, Peter would probably have died peacefully in his eremitical solitude. However, following the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, the cardinals could not agree on his successor and were locked in a stalemate that lasted two years. One day the cardinals received a letter from Abbot Peter, who was then eighty-five, encouraging them to quickly elect a pope so as to avoid the wrath of God. He was already well-known as a holy man and the cardinals decided to throw caution to the wind and elect him as pope. It was one of the most extraordinary papal elections in nearly two thousand years of history!

At first, Celestine seemed an inspired choice. His first appearance was on a donkey, led by the kings of Hungary and Naples, and he chose to be crowned at his native L’Aquila on 29 August 1294. However, despite his personal holiness and his experience as a founding abbot, Celestine knew nothing about politics or diplomacy. He lavishly gave out benefices and gifts, and quickly became a puppet of the King of Naples, who had supported the Celestine monks in the past. The new pope even moved the papal court to Naples and never resided in Rome.

At Advent 1294, Celestine retired into his apartments to make a retreat and left the government of the Church in the hands of three cardinals. Of course, this led to more disorder and the very real likelihood of having three competing centres of power or even three rival popes. Wishing simply to return to his monastery, Celestine decided to resign from office. Pope Celestine became ‘Brother Peter’ once again. His successor, Boniface VIII, kept a close eye on him so that he did not become a threat in the hands of his enemies and the elderly hermit was kept in Fumone, near Anagni. ‘I wanted nothing in this world but a cell’, he would say, ‘and a cell they have given me’. He died on 19 May 1296 – probably naturally although a hole in his skull has suggested to some that he was murdered – and was canonised in 1313.

Uncharted territory it may be but the right of the Supreme Pontiff to resign has long been recognised and Pope Benedict’s courageous and honest decision has been taken before. Let us pray for him, for the Cardinal Electors and the Universal Church.

The History of the Papacy by Fr Nicholas Schofield is available from CTS, priced £1.95


Of related interest:

Election of a Pope Election of a Pope (revised ed.) –This booklet explains the new norms promulgated by John Paul II in 1996 and combines the technical with the historical and spiritual elements of the process to produce a unique and highly informative summary.
Benedict XVI Benedict XVI Biography – revised ed – Here we discover a ‘humble and thoroughly kind man’, a leading thinker very much in touch with this modern age.

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