Listers, in honor of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement of his resignation, we here at SPL have compiled a list of the five well documented and indisputable papal resignation in the history of the Church. From saints to sinners, though the number is small, the difference between these men and their circumstances is vast. Canon law pertaining to papal resignation didn’t exist until AD 1294. For this reason, the resignations have been further divided into their proper categories of canonical and non-canonical resignations.
1. Pope Benedict XVI – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope on 19 April 2005. The relatively short conclave was a bit of a surprise given the number of possible and qualified prelates at the time. Upon his election Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI. He explained that he took the name Benedict for two reasons. First, in order to pay tribute to Benedict XV, who served as Pope during the First World War, and should be viewed as a peacemaker. Benedict XV’s attempts to resolve the hostility between nations was to be his example. He said, “Treading in his footsteps, I would like to place my ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples, since I am profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is first and foremost a gift of God, a precious but unfortunately fragile gift to pray for, safeguard and build up, day after day, with the help of all.1 Furthermore, the name is meant to evoke images of the great Christian saint Benedict of Nursia. On this he said:
The gradual expansion of the Benedictine Order that he founded had an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity across the Continent. St Benedict is therefore deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace; he is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization.2
During his papacy he has put in place many foundational structures that will continue to bear fruit in the work of reconciling many of the divisions that now exist within Christianity to anyone open to unity with the Church. He will also be remembered for his work in evangelization, particularly the work of the “New Evangelization” of our time, which should emphasize the indispensability of our Christian roots.
Benedict XVI announced his resignation on 11 February 2013 stating, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”3 His resignation is to be effective 28 February. This marks the first papal resignation in Modern times.
2. Pope St. Celestine V – Living as a hermit, Pietro di Murrone, wrote a letter to the Cardinals convened at Perugia, who had spent the last two years attempting to elect a Pope to no avail. Upon receiving the letter from Pietro, and its words of warning, the Cardinals swiftly moved to elect Pietro in AD 1294. After his election, Pietro moved to Rome with great reluctance and took the name Celestine V. After only five months in office, Celestine issued a papal bull canonically outlining the right of the pope to resign from his office without any need to have his resignation received by anyone (this is why it is often called “abdication”). Celestine promptly resigned. Celestine is said to have understood his own inadequacy for governing the Church due to his inexperience and even deficiency of physical strength among other things. Celestine V was venerated by Benedict XVI and may be the inspiration behind Benedict’s decision to resign.
3. Pope Gregory XII – At the end of the Avignon Papacy, the Office of St. Peter was transferred back to Rome in AD 1377 by Gregory XI. Upon his death in 1378, the following year, Urban VI was elected. A number of the same Cardinals who had elected Urban, were now upset with his papacy. They removed themselves and returned to Avignon where they held new elections illicitly. This began “the Western Schism.” A large number of Bishops and Christian Faithful, including Kings, Queens, and heads-of-state, were forced to choose allegiance to either the ‘pope’ in Avignon or the true Pope in Rome. It wasn’t until the papacy of Gregory the XII that a resolution to the schism would be resolved.
The College of Cardinals, frustrated with the matter, tried to hold talks in an attempt to end the schism. When this failed, another council was called in Pisa in 1409 by the Cardinals. Complicating matters, they elected a third pope, Alexander V, who was to replace Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. His ‘papacy’ was brief and John XXIII succeeded him in Pisa. Eventually, the Council of Constance was convoked in 1414 during Gregory’s pontificate. Antipope John XXIII resigned his office, but antipope Benedict XIII was declared excommunicated after his refusal to abdicate. On 4 July 1415 announced his resignation by two of his proxies at the council. His resignation was received by the Cardinals, but his successor wouldn’t be elected until after his death 18 October 1417. On 11 November 1417 Pope Martin V was elected, effectively ending the Western Schism.
To read more about St. Celestine V and Gregory XII click here.
4. Pope Gregory VI – Johannes Gratianus, Archpriest of St. John by the Latin Gate, was by all accounts an honest and holy man. His godson, however, had been thrust into the office of Bishop of Rome, which he was reluctant to receive. His godson, who was now on the throne of St. Peter as Pope, freely offered to sell the papacy to Gratianus. Gratianus, who knew the desires of his godson’s heart, paid him the money and succeeded him as Pope. Gratianus took the name Gregory VI. His papacy was fraught with turmoil as his godson had twice been forced out of office, replaced by Pope Sylvester III who was later excommunicated by Gratianus’ godson and forced out of Rome. Gratianus’ godson returned from his exile and retook his throne as pope. Gregory VI all the while being recognized as the true Pope.
King Henry III, King of the Germans, called a council at Sutri in 1046 (not listed as an official ecumenical council). The council formally deposed both Sylvester III and Gregory’s godson. Under pressure and accused of simony after having bought the papacy—which he never denied—from his godson, Gregory resigned. Gregory’s chaplain, Archdeacon Hildebrand, was later elected Pope and took the name Gregory VII, giving legitimacy to the papacy of Gregory VI.