Historian Notes Precedents for Papal Resignation

Benedict XVI Not the First Pope to Step Down From See of Peter

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Though it hasn't happened in about 600 years, there is precedent for a papal resignation. And the Church has the resources and the experience of history to know what to do now.

This is the affirmation of Donald Prudlo, associate professor of History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, who spoke with Vatican Radio today about Benedict XVI's shocking announcement that he is resigning. 

With this news, the Pope joins at least four of his predecessors from history who have also stepped down from the See of Peter.

The historian told the Radio that the last pope to step down was Gregory XII, who did so in 1415 in order to end the Great Western Schism. However, Prudlo observed, the possibility of a papal resignation was confirmed even before that, when at the end of the 13th century, Celestine V resigned after finding himself unfit for the job.

"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," Prudlo explained to Vatican Radio. "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."

Even before that, there were other precedents: "Celestine V and his advisors were aware that this was an unusual process," Prudlo explained. "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."

Thus, the historian explained, the Church already knows how to deal with Benedict XVI's announcement, as shocking as it is.

"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," Prudlo said. "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 announcement, 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."

Now where

As far as what happens to the pope himself once he's stepped down, Prudlo noted the cases of Gregory XII and Celestine V.

Celestine would spend the rest of his life in "sort of a hermit’s cell where [his successor] 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 XII, on the other hand, continued as a "well-respected bishop, the person who had helped, who had really been instrumental in healing the Great Western Schism."