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.
Vatican 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 event.
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?
DP: 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.
VR: Pope Celestine V was later canonised. Can you tell us a little more about this Pope?
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.
VR: Although 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 Benedict’s pontificate?
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.