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Do popes resign?

Or is today’s announcement without precedent?

White smoke billows from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, at the Vatican, in this April 19, 2005, file photo, to announce the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
White smoke billows from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, at the Vatican, in this April 19, 2005, file photo, to announce the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
Image: PIER PAOLO CITO/AP/Press Association Images

“IF IT SHOULD happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.”

That is the important passage of the Code of Canon Law (Canon 332, No. 2) which allowed for today’s papal resignation. As the Pope is the supreme authority in the Church, there is nobody to accept the decision or, indeed, to block it.

In his statement today, Pope Benedict made it clear he was “well aware of the seriousness” of the act, taking care of the “freely” requirement to ensure the validity of the move.

It seems the “duly manifested” extract from the law was interpreted by the pontifex as carrying it out in front of a number of cardinals at the Vatican to ensure against secrecy or ambiguity. Again thought, he is highest legislator so he can really interpret the law as he sees fit.

Although there is precedent, it is highly unusual for a pope not to remain in office until his death. The last time the pontifex resigned was almost 600 years ago in 1415.

So, the surprise and almost-immediate resignation of Pope Benedict XVI today has raised many questions.

Why do Popes abdicate?

In the long history of the Catholic church,  six successors of St. Peter have stepped down from the top job.

  • Marcellinus in 304 AD
  • Liberius in 366 A.D
  • Benedict IX in 1045 A.D
  • Gregory VI in 1046 A.D
  • St. Celestine V in 1294 AD
  • Gregory XII in 1415 AD

Before his death, there were rumours and media speculation about the possibility of Pope John Paul II retiring because of old age and ill health but it never transpired.

He once told a doctor that there is no place in the Catholic Church for an emeritus pope. For what would an ex-pope do?

Therefore, Pope Benedict’s abdication marks the first for health reasons.

Historically, resigning the papal position has caused problems because a living pope could reclaim the title. It often led to scraps for power, challenges to authority and even imprisonment.

Pope St Pontian was the first to abdicate. He was elected in July 230 but during the persecution of Christians was exiled to Sardinia, condemned to work in the salt mines. As it was presume he would not survive, he resigned on 28 September 235.

After Pope Boniface VIII was elected, he imprisoned his predecessor Pope St Celestine V to ensure he would retain his seat. Celestine retired because he wanted to return to the monastery where he lived a hermit life. It is said that during his time as leader of the church, he was susceptible to interfering cardinals and nobility. His election came after two years of political fighting between cardinals, during which time the See remained empty.

His resignation set the most important precedent for Benedict XVI as he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a Pope to resign.

The most recent resignation was Gregory XII in 1415. He was elected as the legitimate pope after a turbulent period in the Church’s history. At the time there were two anti-popes, supported by France and a renegade Council of Pisa. Finally, an agreement was reached for all three to resign or be deposed and a new head chosen.

Can a Pope be removed from his post?

It seems unlikely given what we’ve said already about his infallibility and supreme power, but the answer is yes.

A number of popes have been deposed. However, this mostly in the early days of the Church.

Both St Silverius in 536 and Pope St Martin I in 656 were forcibly deposed, exiled and martyred.

One of the most scandalous popes, Benedict IX agreed to resign (after holding the papacy on two previous, separate occasions) in May 1045 on receipt of money and a woman to marry. However, that deal soon fell apart, leading to the reclamation of the post from Pope Gregory VI. Eventually, both were deposed and Clement II chosen as the legitimate successor.

Pope Benedict XVI has said he will retire to a life dedicated to prayer now and “devotedly serve the Holy Church of God”, seemingly assuaging any fears that he could challenge his successor who will be chosen by the Sacred College of Cardinals next month.

MORE: Pope Benedict resigns, cites ‘advanced age’ and deteriorating health

READ: Pope’s brother: Pontiff was ‘considering resignation for months’

RELATED: In pictures: From Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI

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