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John W. O’MalleyFebruary 28, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation on Feb. 28 has prompted many questions about this historic act. Who was the last pope to step down from his office? How many popes have resigned? These questions are not quite so easy to answer as they might seem.

Canon 332 specifies that to be valid a resignation must be “free”—not coerced. Nine or 10 popes are conventionally described as having resigned. That number would be larger if we included the so-called anti-popes, some of whom, like the first John XXIII (1410-15), may very well have been the legitimate claimant. No matter how long or how short the list, few on it resigned altogether “freely.” Yet, whether free or coerced, the resignations seem to have worked out for the good of the church.

Pope Celestine V (1294) is the best candidate for a freely resigning pope and also the most famous. Dante placed him in hell for this “great refusal,” that is, for shirking the responsibility for which God chose him (Inferno 3.61), but most people think that in resigning Celestine “did well,” as a chronicler from the time put it. His election was unusual, to say the least. After a conclave that lasted over two years, the cardinals in a desperate compromise chose Celestine, a pious hermit. If the pope could not come from their own numbers, the cardinals seemed to reason, the next best thing was to elect a holy person who would be guided by the Spirit. Celestine, in his 80s when elected, was also barely literate in Latin and completely overwhelmed by his duties. In his naiveté he became an unwitting pawn in the hands of King Charles II of Anjou. Elected on July 5, he resigned on Dec. 13. He was pope, therefore, for about five months.

Did he resign freely? There is no hard evidence to the contrary. He explained his action by saying he was ill, lacked the necessary knowledge and experience and wanted to retire to his hermitage. Rumors spread nonetheless that the man who succeeded him as Pope Boniface VIII used undue influence on Celestine to persuade him to resign so that the way be opened for his own election. Whether these rumors are true or false, Boniface’s enemies ceaselessly threw doubt on the legitimacy of his pontificate because of the unusual, putatively unprecedented event of the resignation. As Boniface’s archenemy, King Philip IV of France, put it in a scathing bill of indictment that included almost every imaginable sin and heresy, “He is publicly accused of treating inhumanly his predecessor Celestine—a man of holy memory and holy life who perhaps did not know that he could not resign and that accordingly Boniface could not legitimately enter upon his see.”

Pontian (230-35) is perhaps the next best candidate for a freely resigning pope. In the persecution of the emperor Maximus Thrax, Pontian was deported to the mines in Sardinia. Since such a deportation was the equivalent of a life sentence to hard labor, he gave up the papacy on Sept. 28, 235, the first precisely recorded date in papal history. He did so in order that the church in Rome might choose a successor and thus not be without a leader. His was a noble act and, technically speaking, free, but Pontian would not have resigned had his ability to govern not been forcibly taken from him.

Martin I’s (649-53) case is similar—and different. He strongly opposed the Monothelite heresy (Christ has only one will), which for political reasons Emperor Constans II was promoting. Henchmen of the emperor seized the pope in Rome and brought him, sick and defenseless, to Constantinople to stand trial for treason. Martin was convicted, publicly flogged and condemned to death, though the sentence was commuted to banishment. Martin complained bitterly about being abandoned by the Roman church, which not only had done nothing to help him in his troubles but against his express wishes elected a successor while he was still alive. Martin nonetheless acquiesced in the done deed and prayed God would shield the new pastor of the church of Rome from heresy and enemies.

Other resignations? Clement I (92?-101), once on the list, has been taken off for lack of convincing evidence. For Marcellinus (296-304) the evidence, though perhaps not altogether trustworthy, is better. In the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian, Marcellinus purportedly sacrificed to idols in order to save his life. According to some accounts he was formally deposed, but in any case by committing this act of apostasy he was automatically disqualified from priesthood, which left the Roman church without a head. Whatever happened, it was certainly not a “free” resignation. Benedict V (964), who perhaps should be reckoned more as an anti-pope than the genuine article, reigned only a month before he was deposed by a synod at the instigation of Emperor Otto I. Hardly free.

Benedict IX (1032-45) is a curious case. He was the nephew of both Pope Benedict VIII and Pope John XIX. To keep the papacy within the family, his father bribed the electors in favor of the future Benedict IX, a layman still in his 20s. For the next 13 years Benedict aroused hostility by his political machinations and provoked scandal by his openly dissolute life. By 1045 not only had his situation become unstable but, according to some, he wanted to marry. That year he resigned in favor of his godfather, but not before securing from him a large sum of money. Free decision or not, it was certainly a sordid one. The simony it involved threw doubt on the legitimacy of the new pope, Gregory VI. The next year Emperor Henry III descended into Italy from Germany and had both Benedict and Gregory deposed at a synod at Sutri outside Rome. A third claimant to the papacy, Silvester III, was also condemned at the synod. The emperor, disgusted with the Roman situation, named an upright German as pope, Clement II, an act that turned out to be the first step in rescuing the papacy from the moral morass into which it had fallen and thus the immediate prelude to the Gregorian Reform.

The last pope on the list is Gregory XII (1406-15). His resignation effectively marked the end of the Great Western Schism, that period of church history between 1378 and 1415 when two, then three men each claimed to be the legitimate pope. At the insistence of the German king (later emperor) Sigismund, the first Pope John XXIII, one of the claimants, with great reluctance convoked a council at Constance to resolve the schism. Once the council was in session it became clear to everybody there that to save the papacy, the slate had to be wiped clean, which meant the resignation or deposition of all three claimants. With that John bolted the council in the hope of disrupting it. He had the misfortune, however, to be captured and brought back to the council as a prisoner. Put on trial and deposed, John, now broken in spirit, admitted to wrongs he had done, confirmed the authority of the council and formally renounced any right he might have to the papacy.

The second claimant, Benedict XIII, refused to recognize or deal with the council and consequently was deposed by it. After his deposition and the successful election of the new pope, Martin V, support for Benedict evaporated except for a few die-hards. There remained the third claimant, Gregory XII. Once John had been deposed, the council entered into negotiations with Gregory to try to persuade him to resign. By this time Gregory had only a small following, probably saw the handwriting on the wall and, to give him the benefit of the doubt, was finally ready to do what he could to end the schism. He agreed to resign on condition that he be allowed to convoke the council afresh, so as not to concede any legitimacy to the original convocation by his rival. On July 4, 1415, the council heard his bull solemnly convoking it and then heard the announcement of his resignation. Since that date no popes have “resigned”—until Feb. 28, 2013.

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