Virtually unprecedented: papal resignation throughout history
No pope has resigned in almost 600 years. But Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement
is not entirely unprecedented. More than 260 men have reigned as Pope since Saint
Peter was martyred in Rome in the third decade after the death of Christ, and at least
four of them have resigned.
We spoke to medieval historian Doctor Donald Prudlo,
Associate Professor of History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, about
the history of papal resignations.
Radio: It’s been centuries since a Pope has resigned the See of Peter. Can you
tell us about the last Pope to resign?
Dr. Donald Prudlo: The last Pope
to resign was almost six hundred years ago. It was Pope Gregory XII, who, in a very
sacrificial gesture offered to resign so that the council of Constance could assume
his power and appoint a new Pope, and in so doing bring an end Great Western Schism.
So that was the last pope who actually resigned. So this is quite an unprecedented
VR: At one point there was a question of whether it was possible
for a Pope to resign. When and how did the Church determine that this was possible?
Certainly.At the end of the 13th century, a very holy hermit
named Peter was elected as Pope Celestine V in order to break a deadlock in the conclave
that had lasted nearly three years. He was elected because of his personal holiness,
sort of a unity candidate. And once he got there, being a hermit, not used to the
ways of the Roman Curia, he found himself somewhat unsuited to the task, that it wasn’t
just holiness but also some shrewdness and prudence that was also required. So within
six months he knew that he was really unequal to the task, and so he gathered the
cardinals together in a consistory, just as was recently done, a couple hours ago,
and he announced to the cardinals his intention to resign. Because of the Pope’s position
as the supreme authority in the Church, Celestine declared that the pope could freely
resign, that it was permissible, and that, because, as supreme authority, it did not
have to be accepted by anyone. It just had to be freely manifested, as it says today
in canon 332 of the Code of Canon Law. As long as it is freely and properly manifested
it is to be accepted by no one. The Pope is the supreme authority. Because of this,
his successor Boniface VIII in his redaction of Canon Law called the Liber Sextus
inserted this constitution of Celestine V and it became normative Catholic law.
Pope Celestine V was later canonised. Can you tell us a little more about this
DP: Celestine V was recognised by all as an extremely holy man.
He was sort of the right man at the wrong time. And because of that, because of his
personal holiness, because of his great virtue, he was later elevated to the honours
of the altar. And this brings us to an interesting question: What happens to a pope
after they resign? There was no precedent for this. And so what happened is that Boniface
VIII granted Pope Celestine V sort of a hermit’s cell where he could watch over him.
Some have called it an imprisonment; it was really more of a putting him under supervision.
And Celestine V himself was very happy with this; he humbly acquiesced to this as
it was much more like the hermit life that he had loved so much. Gregory XIII, on
the other hand, was given a titular honorific and lived out his life, not as pope
any more, but as a well-respected bishop, the person who had helped, who had really
been instrumental in healing the Great Western Schism.
it’s possible for a Pope to resign, it has happened very rarely. Can you tell us about
some of the other Popes who have resigned?
DP: Well, Celestine V and
his advisors were aware that this was an unusual process. And so what they did is
they went back through history, they looked at the Liber Pontificalis, and
they could go all the way back to Pope St. Pontian, in 235, one of the first bishops
of Rome, who was arrested and sent to the salt mines, and in order for a successor
to be able to be elected in Rome, he resigned his office. And so as early as 235 we
have evidence of the possibility of Popes resigning for the good of the church. Several
others, they tried to force them to resign. The Byzantines attempted to force Pope
Silverius to resign, but he refused to. But that also demonstrates the possibility
of resignation. And then, at a rather low point in the Church’s history, Pope Benedict
IX, in the 1040s, resigned and attempted to re-acquire the papacy several times. But
according to good reports, he too died in penance at the monastery of Grottaferrata
outside of Rome.
VR: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the
significance of this decision, and maybe give us some historical insight into Pope
DP: The important thing is that the Catholic
Church is such an historically rooted church that we do have things to look to in
order to deal with an event of this type. As unusual as it is, we can look back at
the examples that I just spoke about and know that the laws which govern these things
have been long established in Catholic canon law. And so, for instance, the rules
regarding the conclave that is to come up have been rehearsed for nearly a millennium.
And the Pope, Blessed John Paul II in his Constitution Universi Dominici gregis,
once again re-affirmed these things that have been thought about and discussed for
an exceptionally long time. So while we have, what is to us, a very, very shocking,
and something that makes us certainly have concern for Pope Benedict himself, we know
that the church has the resources and has the things from her history to be able to
meet these challenging situations.