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Benedict's unprecedented abdication

His resignation may set a papal precedent

  • Christopher Joseph, Kochi
  • India
  • February 19, 2013
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In the days following Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he will be resigning his office on February 28, local and international media reports made much of the fact that he was the fifth pontiff to do so in the Church’s history.

What those media reports failed to note was whether any previous pope had publicly resigned by reading a letter of intent before the College of Cardinals, in which he detailed his reasons for taking such a dramatic step.

In fact, no other pope has done what this one did, so searching for such a parallel would be fruitless.

Several popes have given up their office – of their own accord or by force – in the nearly 2,000 years of the Catholic Church’s history. However, none of them abdicated their office because they were physically unfit for service.

Determining exactly how many popes have resigned in the past and under what circumstances is difficult. For example, we know that at different times throughout the history of the Church there have been more than one pope, and sometimes none. Popes have sometimes issued excommunications to their rivals.

Digging back through nearly two millennia of history does not always produce concrete facts.

Pope Pontian, or Pontianus (230-236) is considered the first pontiff to resign. He served initially during a time of peace, but that changed in 235 when Emperor Maximinus Thrax took control of Rome and began an aggressive persecution of Christians.

Pontian was arrested and exiled to Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. He knew that few ever returned from exile alive, so he resigned his office before departing to avoid a power struggle and for the good of the Church.

Perhaps there are some parallels here with Benedict, who stepped down because he deemed himself unfit for the duties required of the office.

John XVIII (1003-1009) left his post for entirely different reasons. He was under the control of the powerful Crescentii clan, who effectively dictated terms to the pontiff. Fed up with external interference, John XVIII resigned and fled to a monastery, where he later died.

Political manipulation within the Vatican was not an extraordinary thing in centuries past. Nor was the resistance to such manipulation among some popes.

Celestine V (1294) was pontiff for a mere five months before he stepped aside. Some accounts suggest that this former hermit did so because he fell foul of a group of cardinals that resented his relationship with Charles II of Sicily. Others say that Celestine V became disenchanted with the secular nature of the role of pope in his day.

But his resignation set a precedent in Canon Law: that a pope may resign of his own free will.

Benedict – a scrupulous theologian well versed in Canon Law – seems to have followed this precedent in announcing his own resignation.

But free will can be a tricky thing to interpret.

Gregory XII (1406-1415) is a good example. The most recent pope to step aside prior to Benedict XVI, Gregory did so in a desperate bid to end the Western Schism – spurred, it is thought, at the insistence of the College of Cardinals.

Gregory was canonically elected by the conclave in 1406, but another claimed to be the legitimate pope at that time – the “anti-pope” Benedict XII based in Avignon.

In addition, a group of cardinals elected a third pope, Alexander V, in a bid to end the stalemate. Gregory resigned in 1415 but a successor was not elected until his death in 1417, leaving the papacy vacant for two years.

But history is full of other examples of papal “resignation”.

Pope Silverius (536-537) fell out with Empress Theodora and was accused of treason. He was forced to abdicate by his successor Pope Vigilius.

Pope Marcellinus (296-304) who reigned during the Diocletian persecutions of 303 was accused of burning incense to pagan gods and was forced out of office.

Then there is Benedict IX (1012-1056), who served as pontiff on three occasions and was accused of selling the papacy. The scandal was so great that Benedict IX’s godfather, a pious priest, bribed him to resign.

None of these historical precedents, such as they are, has any direct bearing on the recent decision by Benedict XVI. His abdication is unprecedented. No previous pontiff has relinquished his office as Vicar of Christ because of physical weakness.

We live in changing times and amid changing notions of Ecclesiology. Some argue that the traditions of past centuries should endure without alteration. Others argue that the Church must change with the times or risk being shunted into irrelevance.

In some ways Benedict XVI could be considered a traditional pope. But the manner in which he has chosen to end his papacy is revealing.

His actions might offer some insight into his understanding of the papacy – as a job that can be relinquished rather than a calling from God that must be endured until death.

Such a notion is indeed a modern approach, and one that might set a precedent for his successors.

Christopher Joseph is India bureau chief for ucanews.com based in Kochi

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