Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Papal Resignations & Abdications

Pope Benedict XVI...until the end of this month.
Photo by M.Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk

It was a bit of a surprise yesterday, when working in the SCR surrounded by a mass of notes on the 16C papacy, to receive a text message saying that Benedict XVI had just resigned as pontiff. To all the late medieval and Renaissance popes I lecture on to Oxford undergraduates, this would have seemed a totally incomprehensible, reckless move, which just serves to show that although timelessness is a central part of the Roman Catholic church’s identity, things do change.

Journalists have been reaching for their dictionaries of medieval popes to grapple with the precedents for a papal resignation / abdication. Producing a definitive list is not easy, because there are different ways of defining ‘resignation’, and early medieval sources can be murky. There are claims that certain late antique popes resigned after being arrested and sentenced by the persecuting Roman imperial authorities. John XVIII was recorded as having died in 1009 as a simple ‘monk’, possibly implying an abdication. Later that century, Benedict IX allegedly sold his papal title in 1045, to Gregory VI who was forced to give it up in the ensuing fall-out. Most famously, the hermit-pope Celestine V abdicated in 1294, issuing a decree which for the first time made papal resignation legal and a recognised possibility in canon law. More recently, in 1415, Gregory XII was leaned upon by Europe’s princes to resign gracefully (like the anti-popes opposing him), and thereby end the 37-year long Great Schism.

Celestine V, Castel Nuovo, Naples
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Although there are, then, precedents and a clear (13C) legal basis for Benedict XVI’s actions, it is nonetheless an unprecedented act. All the medieval pontificates listed above were in acute crisis, whereas Benedict XVI is seen within the Catholic church as the legitimate, uncontested pope, with the support to continue for much longer. The reasons for earlier papal resignations have been incompetence (Celestine V) or corruption, but yesterday a pope gave up the office for the very first time on grounds of physical frailty.

That last point signals a surprising shift in understandings of the role of the pope, if only on the part of the current incumbent himself. The pope is, according to the Catholic church, the Vicar of Christ, directly selected by God (through the agency of the cardinals) in conclave, in the general expectation that he will serve until the end of his life; a bit like a marriage. This was the view taken by John Paul II, who suffered from a long illness, seeing this very public suffering as a necessary, Christ-like part of the office of pope. This contributed to the air of saintliness around the late Polish pontiff. Benedict XVI, however, yesterday clearly rejected his predecessor’s model – stressing that the papacy was an office with actual functions which needed to be performed (e.g. travel). The papacy, in other words, is something you do, not something you simply are. This interpretation of the office – which future popes may or may not embrace – looks modernising, pragmatic, and de-mystifies the papacy. It is a radical step, and will arguably be the Bavarian pope’s most important legacy.

As for the popes of the High Renaissance, they could not have resigned, because they feared their successors would simply murder them and their families – just as the ex-pope Celestine V was reportedly murdered in Anagni castle, where he had been imprisoned, in 1296. In the 21C, a pope can at last resign, retire or abdicate without any such fears.


  1. An interesting article, but I'm not sure about the Pope being able to resign "without fear".

    He probably doesn't need to fear being killed by his successor. But given the use of courts to pursue political disputes (such as the Pinochet case, or the universal jurisdiction claimed by countries such as Belgium and Spain), once the Pope resigns and loses his position of Head of State he will be at risk of arrest if he travels outside the Vatican.

    See for example this article, where Peter Tatchell says that it was only the Pope's legal immunity as Head of State that stopped him trying to make an arrest on his visit to the UK.


  2. Yes, that's a good point. There are lots of rumours circulating on the internet about possible legal action already being prepared against Pope Benedict XVI; some of this is being linked to his resignation, although that does begin to sound a bit like a conspiracy theory.

    It is interesting that he's going to stay put in Vatican City, rather than retiring to a religious house outside Rome, or in Germany.