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Papal resignations through the years

Pope Benedict XVI has led the Catholic Church since 2005, during a time of great change and difficulty. During his time as Pope, he rejected calls for a debate on the issue of clerical celibacy and reaffirmed the ban on Communion for divorced Catholics who remarry. He has also reaffirmed the Church’s strict positions on abortion, euthanasia, and gay partnerships. After eight years, Pope Benedict announced on Monday 11 February that he would step down as pontiff within two weeks. In his resignation statement the 85-year-old Pope 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.”

While abdication is not unheard of, it is the first papal resignation in almost 600 years. To give an overview of the history of papal resignations, we present selected entries from A Dictionary of Popes. (Full entries for the following Popes can be found on Oxford Reference.)

St Pontian (21 July 230–28 Sept. 235)

For most of his reign the Roman church enjoyed freedom from persecution as a result of the tolerant policies of Emperor Alexander Severus (222–35). Maximinus Thrax, however, acclaimed emperor in Mar. 235, abandoned toleration and singled out Christian leaders for attack. Among the first victims were Pontian and Hippolytus, who were both arrested and deported to Sardinia, the notorious ‘island of death’. Since deportation was normally for life and few survived it, Pontian abdicated (the first pope to do so), presumably to allow a successor to assume the leadership as soon as possible. He did so, according to the 4th-century Liberian Catalogue, on 28 Sept. 235, the first precisely recorded date in papal history (other apparently secure dates are based on inference).

St Marcellinus (30 June 296–?304; d. 25 Oct. 304)

On 23 Feb. 303, during St Marcellinus’s reign, Emperor Diocletian (284–305) issued his first persecuting edict ordering the destruction of churches, the surrender of sacred books, and the offering of sacrifice by those attending law-courts. Marcellinus complied and handed over copies of the Scriptures; he also, apparently, offered incense to the gods. His surrender of sacred books disqualified him from the priesthood, and if he was not actually deposed (as some scholars argue) he must have left the Roman church without an acknowledged head. The date of his abdication or deposition, however, is not known.

John XVII (16 May–6 Nov. 1003)

John XVII short-lived papacy is so obscure, the circumstances of his abdication, and indeed his death, are unknown.

Benedict IX (21 Oct. 1032–Sept. 1044; 10 Mar.–1 May 1045; 8 Nov. 1047–16 July 1048: d. 1055/6)

In 1032, Alberic III, head of the ruling Tusculan family, bribed the electorate and had his son Theophylact, elected as Pope, and the following day enthroned, with the style Benedict IX. Still a layman, he was not, as later gossip alleged, a lad of 10 or 12 but was probably in his late twenties; his personal life, even allowing for exaggerated reports, was scandalously violent and dissolute. If for twelve years he proved a competent pontiff, he owed this in part to native resourcefulness, but in part also to an able entourage and to the firm control which his father exercised over Rome. He was the only pope to hold office, at any rate de facto, for three separate spells.

St Peter Celestine V (5 July–13 Dec. 1294: d. 19 May 1296)

Naive and incompetent, and so ill educated that Italian had to be used in consistory instead of Latin, St Peter Celestine V let the day-to-day administration of the church fall into confusion.

Aware of his shortfalls, he considered handing over the government of the church to three cardinals, but the plan was sharply opposed. Finally, on 13 Dec. of the same year, he abdicated, was stripped off the papal insignia, and became once more ‘brother Pietro’.

And if you were wondering if there was any other way that a Pope could end their reign, the following Popes were deposed:

Liberius (17 May 352–24 Sept. 366)

A Roman by birth, he was elected at a time when the pro-Arian faction was in the ascendant in the east and Constantius II (337–61), now sole emperor, was taking steps to force the western episcopate to fall into line and join the east in anathematizing Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373), always the symbol of Nicene orthodoxy.

Since Liberius held out against this, resisting bribery and then threats, he was brought by force to Milan and then, proving unyielding, banished to Beroea in Thrace (and, as such, deposed). Here his morale collapsed, overcome by boredom, said Jerome, and under pressure from the local bishop, and, in painful contrast to his previous resolute stand, after two years he acquiesced in Athanasius’ excommunication, accepted the ambiguous First Creed of Sirmium (which omitted the Nicene ‘one in being with the Father’), and made abject submission to the emperor.

With the death of Constantius (3 Nov. 361), however, he was free to reassume his role as champion of Nicene orthodoxy.

Gregory VI (1 May 1045–20 Dec. 1046: d. late 1047)

An elderly man respected in reforming circles, John Gratian (who became Gregory VI) was archpriest of St John at the Latin Gate when his godson Benedict IX (see above), recently restored to the papal throne, made out a deed of abdication in his favour on 1 May 1045. A huge sum of money apparently changed hands; and according to most sources Benedict sold the papal office, whilst according to others the Roman people had to be bribed. The whole transaction remains obscure, probably because it was deliberately kept dark at the time.

The bribery was ultimately unsuccessful, and on 20 Dec. the next year Gregory VI appeared before the synod of Sutri, near Rome. After the circumstances of his election had been investigated, the emperor and the synod pronounced him guilty of simony in obtaining the papal office, and deposed him.

Gregory XII (30 Nov. 1406–4 July 1415: d. 18 Oct. 1417)

In their eagerness to see the end of the Great Schism (1378–1417), each of the fourteen Roman cardinals at the conclave following Innocent VII’s death swore that, if elected, he would abdicate provided Antipope Benedict XIII did the same or should die.

At first it seemed that the hopes everywhere aroused by his election would be speedily fulfilled. However, Gregory’s attitude altered; personal doubts and fears, combined with pressures from quarters apprehensive of what might ensue if he had to resign, made him eventually refuse the planned meeting with Benedict XIII. As the negotiations dragged on, Gregory’s cardinals became increasingly restive. They joined forces with four of Benedict’s cardinals at Livorno, made a solemn agreement with them to establish the peace of the church by a general council, and in early July sent out with them a united summons for such a council to meet at Pisa in March 1409.

Both popes were invited to attend the forthcoming council, but both naturally refused. The council of Pisa duly met, under the presidency of the united college of cardinals, in the Duomo on 25 Mar. Charges of bad faith, and even of collusion, were laid in great detail against both popes. At the 15th session, on 5 June, Gregory and Benedict were both formally deposed as schismatics, obdurate heretics, and perjurors, and the holy seat was declared vacant. On 26 June the cardinals elected a new pope, Alexander V.

Adapted from multiple entries in A Dictionary of Popes, Second edition, by J N D Kelly and Michael Walsh, also available online as part of Oxford Reference. This fascinating dictionary gives concise accounts of every officially recognized pope in history, from St Peter to Pope Benedict XVI, as well as all of their irregularly elected rivals, the so-called antipopes.

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