I’ve been asked by several people about my thoughts concerning Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation . In particular, they want to know if there is a historical precedence.
Well…I’m glad you asked.
I won’t pontificate (groan) on whether successive popes will resign when they start falling asleep in church (they won’t). But I would like to share with you the historical context behind a couple of names being thrown around.
You will no doubt read that the last person to resign was Gregory XII in 1415. And this is true. But he didn’t want to.
You see, when he resigned there were no less than three men who claimed to be the head of the church. His resignation took place at the end of the Great Western Schism in which rival popes battled for the title “The Vicar of Christ” by sending armies to kill one another.
And when that didn’t work, they called each other really bad names.
It was an unsightly mess that started when a very old pope named Urban VI decided he didn’t have much time on earth and, by golly, he was going to clean house before his last rites. He preached hellfire sermons filled with accusations and threats.
For example, he condemned the rich-and-famous lifestyles of the cardinals and threatened to excommunicate anyone who received any gifts whatsoever that continued to support said lifestyle. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals acted like a debutant at a ball who throws a fit because her daddy bought her a red Ferrari instead of a fuchsia one like she had asked.
But the pope’s zeal was making more than just the cardinals upset. More and more people became the target of his vitriol. And eventually Urban VI developed a reputation for being crazy. When Urban found out about the rumor, he threw a fit and acted crazy. And to further solidify power against a growing opposition, he appointed a significant number of relatives to high offices in the church.
In other words, he used the age-old strategy of fighting simony and greed with nepotism.
The College of Cardinals who elected him soon regretted it and met in secret to figure out what to do. The obvious answer was to fire Urban VI and elect a kinder, gentler reformer by the name of Clement VII. Which they did.
But when Urban VI found out about it, he went crazy.
He fired the opposing Cardinals and appointed new ones, thus creating the untenable situation where two popes and two colleges of cardinals claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the church.
Clement decided to end the rivalry by sending an army to Rome to depope Urban. But they were French. So they lost. And so Clement setup shop in Avignon and Urban continued to rule in Rome.
I must clarify at this point that the Roman Catholic Church only recognizes Urban and the papal lineage from Rome (aptly naming the others “antipopes) even though the same College of Cardinals who elected Urban essentially elected Clement. But then the Roman popes will win this feud so they get to write the history.
After several decades, the Great Western Schism ended when the Council of Constance pronounced the existing popes null and void, thus forcing Gregory XII in Rome (the last official pope to resign) to step down.
By now, the antipope Benedict XIII was in Avignon, and he continued to believe he was the only true pope until the day he died, strutting around town like the emperor with no clothes. With his passing, the Avignon line of popes ended.
You may hear the name “Celestine V” as the first pope to willingly step down from office. But that all depends on your definition of “willingly.”
Celestine V was a devout Franciscan who desired to move the church back to simplicity and humility. He put away the luxurious trappings of popedom and walked around barefoot. And if he needed to go a long way, he forewent the 13th century version of a popemobile and rode a donkey. Many hoped he would be the fulfillment of a prophecy uttered by Joachim of Fiore (a medieval cross between J.N. Darby and Tim LaHaye) who proclaimed that the “Age of the Spirit” would be ushered in by an austere mendicant.
But alas, the purveyors of end time prophecies were going to have to wait until the 21st century and Kirk Cameron to set things right. For despite Celestine V’s obvious piety and sincerity, he underestimated just how much leaders in the church loved both God and Mammon. He faced a fierce backlash, so that after a brief stint as pontiff, he showed up at a meeting of the Cardinals and resigned by taking off his papal robe and plopping on the ground, daring anyone to make him change his mind.
His supporters tried to do just that, making the case that though a pope was the most powerful man in the church, he wasn’t powerful enough to abdicate. Only God could fire a pope by, well, making him dead. Ergo, Celestine was still pope, whether he wanted to be or not.
But a cardinal named Benedetto Gaetani was more than happy to accept Celestine’s resignation, especially since it paved the way for him to become the next pope (Boniface VIII) who famously picked a fight with a bunch European monarchs by issuing the unam sanctum, a document that essentially declared to all political leaders, “As a matter of fact, I AM the boss of you!”
An act that, interestingly enough, created the political maelstrom out of which the Great Western Schism among the popes would arise.
So there you have it.