After much reflection, and after much reading (and much putting off), I have compiled some thoughts on the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. The man has been a giant, in his own small way: quiet in demeanor, yet able to move a crowd of thousands to cheers (I’ve seen it happen myself). He is the first pope of my adult life, having become Supreme Pontiff in 2005, my freshman year of college. I remember when I heard of his election: I was working in the college’s kitchen, as students ran out of the building and through the trees to the large TV in the school’s gym. I watched them run, and I couldn’t leave, but someone shouted to me as they left, “There’s white smoke.” The cardinals had elected a new pope!
Thus was my first interaction with Benedict XVI.
During the ensuing years, I came to love this man. I helped at a summer conference about him at Christendom College, shook his hand TWICE at two separate Wednesday audiences, and have looked forward eagerly for his encyclicals and books, especially his three volumes about Jesus.
Then came the morning of February 11, 2013. Pope Benedict, I heard, was soon stepping down as pope.
I must say, I did not belief the reports that the pope was resigning. I had heard rumors for years, both with Bl. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and had not put much credence in them. Few popes in the Church’s history have resigned (as I’ll discuss below), the most recent one, as many news stations have reported, being Gregory XII in 1415 (his resignation helped end one of the greatest scandals in Western Christendom: The Great Western Schism). Benedict’s resignation, though, struck me as odd and unbelievable at first. As the day stretched on, and I took advantage of my breaks from teaching to read the news develop over internet, including the Holy Father’s words on resigning, I began to come to a startling conclusion. Well, for me it was startling.
The Conclusion: I wasn’t surprised.
I wasn’t. I read the pope’s words, and then read some comments, and I, like several other Catholic writers (several of which are linked to below in the For Further Reading), recalled the quiet teaching moment in 2009 when Pope Benedict put his pallium, the symbol of his authority as an archbishop, on the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V (Peter Celestine), another pope who resigned from the papal throne. What was he saying? One finds the answer in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (p. 29-30):
[Question, Seewald]: The great majority of these [sex abuse] cases took place decades ago. Nevertheless they burden your pontificate now in particular. Have you thought of resigning?
[Response, Benedict]: When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.
[Note the circumstances Benedict rejects as times to resign: “When the danger is great,” that is, during a great crisis where fortitude is needed, when the Church needs a warrior pope, one to face the forces of Hell and shout, “I am Peter! I am the Rock, and you shall not prevail against us!”]
[Question]: Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?
[Response]: Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.
Benedict clearly supported papal resignation, under certain circumstances. His requirements for resignation mentioned here are very similar to the resignation announcement he gave earlier this month. In his announcement to the cardinals (and to the world), he said, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
In resigning, he is merely following his own teaching, his own philosophy, his own papalogy.
What of these earlier resigning popes? News reports, secular and Catholic, noted the historical importance of this event because the last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII (mentioned above). What is the history of papal resignations? Is there a papal resignation similar to that of Benedict?
First let’s look at a list of papal resignations:
The earliest papal resignation was that of Pope St. Pontian, who resigned on September 28, 235. He stepped down after being sentenced to the Roman mines on Sardinia, which was the not-so-fun Roman way of killing someone slowly, working them to death mining salt in the hot, Mediterranean sun. Pontian did die in exile on the island (reconciling the Church’s first antipope, St. Hippolytus, while he was out there). Those were dangerous times (Pontian’s successor, Pope St. Anterus, died a martyr a mere forty days after his election as pope), and Pontian’s decision to resign to ensure the presence of a visible head for the Church remains a highly prudent decision.
Following Pontian, several popes, according to various sources, resigned, including Pope Liberius (died 366, the first pope NOT declared a saint by the Church), Pope Benedict V (who, in 964, abdicated under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I), and Pope John XVIII (died in 1009, though not before resigning in July of that year).
Perhaps the most confusing case of papal resignation, however, is that of Pope Benedict IX. He’s the Grover Cleveland of popes; he reigned as pope THREE separate times. Benedict was elected in October of 1032; he was twenty years old, one of, if not the, youngest popes. Struggle ensued due to his hedonistic lifestyle. The people of Rome kicked him out because of his debauchery, put their own antipope (who styled himself Sylvester III) on the papal throne, but were thwarted by Benedict when he returned to remove his rival. He resigned in 1045, bribed to do so by another priest, who became Pope Gregory VI after Benedict resigned. Soon after this, Benedict came to regret his resignation, so he attempted to put himself up as pope against Pope Gregory (making himself an antipope). The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III got involved and had both Benedict IX and Sylvester III (who still claimed to be pope) deposed; he also convinced Pope Gregory to resign, leaving the papal throne open for Pope Clement II. Benedict was determined to keep the papacy, and following Clement’s death in October 1047, he took back the papal throne. He remained there for less than a year; troops sent by the Holy Roman Emperor drove him out of Rome for good, allowing for the election of Pope Damasus II.
Confused? Depressed? For the latter, don’t worry, because Benedict was supposed to have repented of his sins later, living out the rest of his life in a monastery. As far as confusion is concerned, this is only slightly less confusing than the Great Western Schism, which we will discuss later.
The first official, canonical papal resignation was Pope St. Celestine V, mentioned earlier. The Catholic cardinals (all ten of them) had elected Celestine (his baptismal name was Peter) as pope in March of 1294, a compromise move, as these same cardinals had dragged out the papal conclave for over two years.
Imagine that, for a moment. Two years without a pope. Many Catholics worry how the Church will function during the few weeks in which we will struggle without a pope; imagine two years as a flock without a shepherd. It is no wonder that Pope Celestine accepted the papal office, the last hope against schism.
Celestine was eighty years old when he became pope. His pontiff was short, a mere ten months, as the political intrigues that corrupted the Church wore at him. He asked his advisors if he could resign. They were torn; the last pope to resign had been Benedict IX, and there was a mess following that abdication. The majority of these canon lawyers said, yes, of course the pope can resign. Celestine made his decision, and on December 13, 1294, he resigned. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him placed in prison, an assurance that Peter Celestine would not go back on his abdication; the last thing the Church needed was a former pope acting as an antipope again.
Much chaos came in the ensuing centuries following Pope St. Celestine’s short reign. One sees several scandals erupt through the Church: The Avignon Papacy (started by Boniface’s successor Clement V) and the Great Western Schism (wherein THREE men claimed to be pope, though only one was the real pope).
The Great Western Schism provided the circumstances for the most recent papal resignation prior to that of Benedict XVI, namely that of Gregory XII. Following the return of the papacy to Rome, the reigning pontiff (Urban VI) fell out of favor with the cardinals who elected him (that tends to happen when the pope publicly yells at cardinals; Urban VI was not known for his people skills). Most of the cardinals regrouped and held another election in 1378, selecting a man they claimed to be the new pope. Never before in Church history had the cardinals set up an antipope against the pope they had elected earlier. This antipope set up his residence in Avignon, and soon Europe erupted into confused convulsions. Europe’s princes sided with either the true pope or the Avignon antipope. Matters worsened when a group of cardinals met in Pisa in 1409, hoping that, by meeting in council, they would elect someone to be pope. They did elect someone. Thus the three men claiming to be pope. Matters worsened until finally the Hungarian King Sigismund (later Holy Roman Emperor) called the bishops of the Church to meet at a council in Constance (in modern-day Germany). He invited all of the papal claimants to the council. The true pope was Gregory XII. He saw the disaster threatening the Church, and he acted: He offered to resign the papacy, leaving the See of Peter vacant, placing in the council’s hands the task of electing a pope to unite Christendom. He requested that the other two papal claimants, the two antipopes, do the same, that is, resign and abdicate their positions. After some intrigue, all three claimants relinquished their authority (or what authority they thought they had, in the case of the antipopes), and the Council of Constance elected Martin V as pope. The Council was only able to do this, in this unique situation, because Pope Gregory had declared they could. The Council did not have authority over the reigning pontiff. Only after the pope resigned could the successor be elected.
Thus Pope Gregory XII resigned to preserve the unity of the Church in a time of crisis.
How does all of this compare to Pope Benedict’s resignation? He resigned in a time of peace for the Church. Oh sure, the Church faces dangers and enemies in every age, and this age is no exception. But in the case of Pope Benedict, there was not a great crisis facing the Church. There isn’t a violent persecution where pope after pope is led to their deaths, or a scandal where Christendom itself is rent asunder. Nor did Benedict XVI resign for selfish reasons like Benedict IX. He resigned because he could not continue. He resigned because, as he said in the announcement that shocked the world this past February 11, he did not have the strength for the “adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” In this regard, he most closely resembles Pope St. Celestine V, who resigned because he too did not have the strength to deal with the rigors of the papacy.
As I write this, the Church has entered a period of emptiness. It is an emptiness mixed with excitement for me, as I tear up to say goodbye to a most worthy successor of St. Peter. I will miss him. I already miss him. But at the same time I look forward to the conclave, the meeting of cardinals, and the puffs of white smoke, and the ringing of church bells, to signal the election of a new pope, a new captain in the barque of St. Peter.
Of course, the Pope Emeritus remains in my prayers, as do the cardinals who have already begun to descend on Rome to vote for the next pope. Holy Spirit, guide them, keep them safe, and do not let the Evil One tempt them away from God’s Will.
For Further Reading:
Kirsch, Johann Peter. “Pope St. Pontian.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12229b.htm. – There’s not a whole lot we know about this pope, but this article sums it up nicely.
Mann, Horace. “Pope Benedict IX.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02429a.htm. – Makes sense out of the confusion caused by Pope Benedict IX’s reign.
Shahan, Thomas. “Council of Constance.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04288a.htm. – Details what led up to the Council and what occurred during it.
Mirus, Jeff. “Benedict: Far from the First Pope to Resign.” Catholic Culture. http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otc.cfm?id=1055. – Dr. Jeffery Mirus, a Church Historian (and co-founder of ChristendomCollege) takes a look at the historical record of popes who resigned.
The Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club, http://www.popebenedictxvifanclub.com/index.html – Has pretty much EVERYTHING by or about Pope Benedict on the web. Have at it!
Prudlo, Donald S. “Pope Benedict’s Resignation in Historical Context.” Crisis Magazine. http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/pope-benedicts-resignation-in-historical-context – A reflection on Benedict’s resignation not only in light of his historical predecessors, but also in light of the saints-to-be discussed at the canonization consistory where he announced he would retire.
Carroll, Warren H. A History of Christendom. Vol. 3. The Glory of Christendom. Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1993. – Chapters 8-12 give, in great detail, the historical context of the papacies of Pope St. Celestine V, the Avignon Papacy, the Great Western Schism, and the Council of Constance.
Moynihan, Robert. “The Scandal of Secularism: Pope Benedict XVI & Pope Celestine V” Institute of Catholic Culture (August 29, 2010). http://www.instituteofcatholicculture.org/the-scandal-of-secularism-pope-benedict-xvi-pope-celestine-v/ – It was in this lecture that I first heard of the connection between Pope Benedict and Pope Celestine V.
Looking towards the future. . . . .
Smith, Bartholomew. “From Sede Vacante to Habemus Papam: How the Empty Chair of Peter Gets Filled.” Theology on Tap: Arlington Diocese (Januardy 16, 2012). http://arlingtondiocese.org/podcasts/2012-01tot_podcast/tot_2012-01-16.mp3 – Fascinating talk about what happens in a papal conclave from the former secretary of the senior cardinal at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.