After Benedict: A Look Ahead
When Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world with his resignation in February, a flood of questions followed, starting with “Can a pope resign?” to “What happens now?” His startling move has sent pastors, parishioners, and reporters back to Church history. There we find a handful of papal resignations, to be sure, but also some helpful lessons on just what papal authority is and what it means for the Church as an institution and a community of faith.
Can a Pope Resign?
The short answer is yes, he just did—and he’s not the first. Because some of the earliest centuries of Church history aren’t well documented, we can’t be sure just how many have resigned, but no more than a good handful is a safe bet.
It appears the first pope to resign was Pope St. Pontian. A bishop of Rome (not quite the role we relate to today’s papacy), his pontificate was from 230 to 235. At that time Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, so like all other Christians, Pontian was an outlaw. He was about to be a martyr, sent to a prison on the island of Sardinia. Concerned that news of his death wouldn’t reach the Christian community back in Rome, he stepped down as pope so a successor could be chosen, thus ensuring that the line back to Peter’s authority remained unbroken.
In the early Middle Ages, a few other bishops of Rome—by then popes in a more familiar sense—either stepped down or were forced out; the circumstances surrounding each instance aren’t clear. Pope Benedict V, installed for only a month in 964, yielded to an emperor’s push to leave office. In the rocky middle of the eleventh century, a number of popes jostled for legitimacy—sometimes on the papal throne, sometimes off. A pair stand out: Benedict IX had three stints as pope between 1032 and 1048. He sold his position in 1045 to Gregory VI, who in turn was deposed by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III because of that illegal action.
The most famous (or perhaps infamous) papal resignation was that of Pope Celestine V, a hermit selected because of his holiness when the cardinals couldn’t decide on a new pope for more than two years. This simple man was completely unsuited for the politics of the medieval curia; in 1294, after five months, he stepped down. He died 18 months later while being kept under house arrest by his successor—rumors of a nefarious hand in his death persist to this day. Most know Celestine V because Dante, in his Inferno, placed him at the doorway to hell for his “great refusal” (il gran rifiuto) of the papal throne.
Although Celestine V is often recognized as the last pope to resign, Gregory XII’s 1415 resignation was the most recent. He was one of three popes competing for authority and allegiance in the awful episode called the Great Western Schism (1378–1417). At first there was one pope in Avignon and another in Rome, and then a failed council in Pisa in 1409 added another line. This resulted in more than just three popes—there were three papacies: three Colleges of Cardinals and three curias. Each excommunicated the others.
Finally, the Council of Constance (1414–1418) very carefully established its authority and tried diplomacy to resolve the schism. But when everything failed, the Constance delegates deposed Benedict XIII
of the Avignon line and John XXIII of the Pisan or conciliar line. (Taking the name of John XXIII, considered dead, in the conclave that elected
him in 1958 was the first mark of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli’s independence from tradition.)
That left Gregory XII of the Roman line. Although one of his predecessors, Urban VI, was clearly mentally unstable, nevertheless Gregory XII probably had the best legal claim to the papal throne. Yet he chose to step down in 1415, metaphorically falling on his sword for the sake of Church peace and unity. He lived as a respected cardinal until his death two years later.
For most of us, resigning or retiring is normal, which makes a lifetime appointment to anything an anomaly. As we live not only longer but healthier lives, a good retirement is something to plan for and enjoy. Even recently in the United States, Supreme Court justices have retired to fairly active lives of speaking and writing instead of dying in office.
In the Church, bishops must submit their resignation at age 75; however, the pope can choose not to accept it. At age 80, bishops must step down, although they remain ordained bishops until death.
When Paul VI set the bishops’ retirement age at 75 in 1966 but didn’t place a limit on papal terms of office, there was grumbling, especially when he restricted conclave voting to cardinals under age 80.
So, while we know what to do with a retired bishop or cardinal, the procedure for papal resignation has a few holes, which canon lawyers have stated should be addressed.
Canon law indicates that the pope’s resignation must be made openly and freely. Indeed, Benedict XVI very clearly and carefully said he acted “with full freedom.” Canon law doesn’t say this resignation must be accepted by anyone—after all, who would accept it? Since Benedict XVI made his statement in a gathering of cardinals, he was essentially submitting it to them as a body.
Also, as with any official action, the resignation must be made when the person is of sound mind. Until we know more (likely years from now), we won’t know whether this is a reason Benedict chose to step down when he did. If he slipped into a coma, had advanced dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or a stroke that placed him in a vegetative state (a fear concerning John Paul II’s final days)—the Church would truly be in uncharted territories. In fact, a pope stricken by such calamities could not resign, because he wouldn’t be of sound mind.
Can a pope be removed from office, either by voluntary advance directive like a living will or by those around him who recognize he can’t continue? Pope Pius XII allegedly prepared a letter resigning if he was taken captive by the Nazis or Fascists during World War II. John Paul II reportedly offered undated letters to the College of Cardinals directing that if he became incapacitated, he would ipso facto cease being pope. But some canon lawyers wonder whether an undated letter would be valid.
The twenty-fifth amendment to the United States Constitution lays down a succession plan for the American presidency, but the Vatican doesn’t have a comparable plan in place for a “vice pope” to step in should a pope become incapacitated or mentally incompetent—either temporarily or permanently—from an assassination attempt. Neither does the Vatican have an established cabinet of close advisers who can step in and remove him from office if he’s no longer able to function. (For an example of how it might work with the president in America, see the movie Air Force One or the television show The West Wing.)
Viewed in this light, Benedict’s resignation may make it easier for Francis and future popes to resign in similar circumstances and for canon lawyers and theologians to have an open discussion about what to do if a pope is suddenly incapacitated.
What Does This Mean for Papal Authority?
Some fear that a pope emeritus would interfere in his successor’s election or in the next pope’s (in this case, Francis’)actions; however, this doesn’t make sense, especially given this particular person of Joseph Ratzinger. If a pope wanted to be active and in charge, why would he retire in the first place? Pope Benedict XVI used a very strong and unambiguous word to state what he was doing: renounce. There can be no question: He does not wish to meddle.
What the Church receives as a gift from the papacy is unity, and it’s simply impossible to imagine a man who has spent his life serving the Church acting to fracture that unity. Of course, throughout history the idea of one bishop having jurisdiction and authority over other bishops has led to splits within Christianity. Ironically, John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical On Commitment to Ecumenism (Ut Unum Sint, “that they may be one”) called for a discussion of the papacy as an institution that might bring unity out of division through “a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject” (96).
The Church thrives because it hands down the deposit of faith—the content of revelation. This is what the word tradition means: tradere means “to hand over”; traditio is the idea or thing we pass from one person to the next. As a bishop and theologian, Joseph Ratzinger participated in that handing down when, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, he made sure the deposit of faith was communicated clearly. As Benedict XVI, he patrolled what he saw as infringements on traditional teaching with what critics described as an unnecessarily heavy hand.
For Benedict XVI, Francis, and their successors, the unity of the papacy is essential to the preservation of the Catholic faith and the institutional Roman Catholic Church. That Church now lives on a global scale as never before, and its leadership reflects that geographic diversity.
This isn’t new, but the scale is different. In the early twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux advised his former student Pope Eugenius III to name cardinals from all over the Christian world, which at that time meant Europe specifically on its frontiers, where Christianity was still expanding. John XXIII, Paul VI, and especially John Paul II named growing numbers of cardinals from Latin America (including, in 2001, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Argentina—now Pope Francis), Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
As we move further into the third millennium of Christianity, the Church is poised to live more fully and completely in a media-driven, technological society by applying ancient truths in new ways. To do so, it must be bold; yet at this moment in our history, it’s the humble, noble, and selfless action of Benedict XVI that resonates. In an age that values strength, who lays down power and walks away? We turn to mythical heroes like the Roman Cincinnatus. In 458 bc, he was given dictatorial powers to fight off an enemy. He handled the problem in about two weeks, walked away from his commission, and went back to his farm. Americans have the example of George Washington, who could have ruled like an emperor forever but first chose to lay down his sword as general and then later limit himself to two terms as president.
It could be that through Benedict XVI’s resignation, the Church has found in this sometimes awkward, often theoretical, scholarly pope a powerful model of servant leadership for the third millennium.
Christopher M. Bellitto, PhD