Daniel Boorstein: A Brief History of Papal Resignations

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: popes, papacy, Catholicism, papal resignations, Daniel Boorstein

Daniel Bornstein is Professor of History and Religious Studies and the Stella Koetter Darrow Professor of Catholic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the vice-president of the American Catholic Historical Association, and will assume the presidency in 2014. He is the author of The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy and the editor of Medieval Christianity, volume 4 of A People’s History of Christianity.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, announced for February 28, is an action virtually without precedent. No pope has resigned in modern times. No pope has ever resigned for reasons of failing health. And hardly any pope—only one, really—has ever resigned the papacy voluntarily. Early examples are shrouded in obscurity, but were all obviously constrained in one way or another. Pontian (230-235) is said to have resigned after being exiled: he evidently recognized that he could not function as bishop of Rome while performing slave labor in the mines of Sardinia. Marcellinus (296-304) had the misfortune to be bishop of Rome during the great persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian. He reportedly bent to imperial pressure and offered sacrifice to the pagan gods; and as a consequence, he was either deposed or forced to abdicate.

Even under Christian emperors, popes could run afoul of the political authorities and be forced from office. Benedict V (964) lasted barely a month in office before being deposed by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Henry III deposed Benedict IX and two rival popes in 1046, ending a brief but messy schism and initiating a sweeping reform of the church. As part of that reform, in 1059 Pope Nicholas II decreed that popes would henceforth be elected by the chief clergy of Rome—the College of Cardinals—which has been the standard procedure for papal elections ever since. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) dealt with the Great Western Schism, which since 1378 had divided the Catholic Church between two (and after 1409, three) competing popes. Invoking the conciliar theory—the idea that supreme authority in the earthly Church lies not in the papacy, but in the assembled body of the faithful as represented by an ecumenical council—the council was able to pressure all three papal claimants to resign, and then to restore unity with the election of Pope Martin V in 1417. None of these popes left office willingly....

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