A Writer's Journey

February 15, 2013

Special: The Pope and Resignation

Filed under: off topic — mackenziew @ 4:35 am
Tags: , , , ,

On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world and the Roman Catholic Church by announcing his resignation from the papacy. He believes he no longer has the strength physically and mentally to lead the Church on earth. In most cases, the pope reigns until his death but Benedict is not the first pope to resign (and this history includes another Benedict).

I’ve decided to discuss the history of papal resignation. Why? Well, it’s timely and I do focus on history in my writing. So here we go!

The first papal resignation was in the 3rd century. Pope Pontian was exiled during a persecution of the Christians in Rome. So he sent a missive to Rome, resigning so the elders could choose a new pope to lead them. Wikipedia lists both Marcellinus and Liberius as resigning, but Catholic Encyclopedia doesn’t. Of course, Wikipedia isn’t not an entirely reliable source and the dates for Marcellinus are inaccurate as the article gives 308 as the end of his papacy. Marcellinus was martyred in 304 but due to persecutions a new pope was not elected for four years, so someone must have assumed Marcellinus died in 308. As for Liberius, he was exiled but did not follow Pontian’s example.

But these last two Popes do have something in common: scandal. Marcellinus was accused of offering incense to the pagan gods. Marcellinus recanted and professed his belief in Christianity, leading to his death. As for Liberius, it is widely believed during his exile that he signed papers supporting the Arian heresy. This contradicted the Christian belief that God and Jesus were one, instead saying Jesus was a lesser being than God—like an angel. Scholars believe he did so under duress as once he returned to Rome, he continued to fight against the Arians. Perhaps the editors mistook people questioning whether these Popes did something to relinquish their power as resignations? I don’t know.

It is also believed Pope John XVIII may have resigned but there is no proof for this. This belief arises because some sources say John ended his life as a monk.

Now we come to Benedict IX. This is where it starts to get interesting. Benedict was maneuvered into the papacy by his father, whose relatives had been pope prior to Benedict. The family wanted to keep it to themselves for the power it commanded. And Benedict is listed as one of the worst popes in church history, though not much explained why other than the fact that he enjoyed the power of being pope. The people actually tried to overthrow him, but he managed to regain his position as pope.

Eventually he wanted to marry so his uncle paid him to leave. The uncle then became pope but didn’t last too long. Because of the money exchanged, it appeared he had bought the papacy and so was deposed. Benedict reclaimed the papacy but was once again driven out. Not much is known about his later years, but the accepted belief is that he repented his sinful ways, gave up his claim on the papacy and lived in a monastery until his death.

The Vatican, though, only recognizes two popes who have officially resigned. The first was St. Celestine V. His story starts off pretty funnily. After the death of Nicholas IV, there was a long period where there was no pope. Partially due to politics, but also due to the fact the cardinals treated it like a big party. After a couple years, the Church was getting frustrated. The cardinals were surprised to receive a message from a hermit living outside Rome: Pick a pope or God will punish you. So the Cardinals picked him to be Pope. Celestine wasn’t a great pope but mostly because he didn’t know how to play politics and relied heavily on his aides. After five months, Celestine decreed a Pope can resign and then did so.

Of course, Celestine could not see what his resignation would lead to. Namely, the Western Schism. Celestine’s successor, Pope Boniface VIII, made an enemy of Phillip the Fair, King of France. So much so that when Clement V—a Frenchman—became Pope, he had the pope desecrate Boniface’s remains. Clement moved the papacy to Avignon, where it remained for the next seventy years—especially under the control of the French. This caused problems within the Church, especially with the Italian faction. Eventually, St. Catherine of Siena approached Pope Gregory XI and told him God wished the Church to return to Rome.

So Gregory XI did so, to the displeasure of the French king as well as the people of Avignon, who had risen in prominence living in the papal residence. This started the Western Schism as a rival pope was then elected and placed in Avignon. The schism lasted another forty years and at one point, three popes claimed to be the Holy Father at once. When Gregory XII was elected, he said he would resign if the other two popes did so to allow one pope to be elected. Though it took some time, this did come to pass and the Western Schism was ended.

As you can see, Benedict XVI is not alone. But I don’t think we’ll face the same problems we did back in the Middle Ages namely as the Pope has little to no political power. There will be some questions that arise from having a living former pope, but all signs show that Benedict wants nothing to do with the papacy after his resignation and wants to finish his life in prayerful solitude. I wish him nothing but the best.


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