Recalling Previous Popes Who Have Resigned

Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope to resign in 600 years. Linda Wertheimer looks back on some of the popes who have resigned with Kean University Professor Christopher Bellitto.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Pope Benedict XVI made his first public appearance this morning since announcing his resignation. He was greeted with a standing ovation, told the faithful at the Vatican's main audience hall he's stepping down for the good of the church. This comes as new details about his health are released. He had heart surgery recently to replace a pacemaker. Still, his resignation remains perplexing, because it is extraordinarily rare for a pope to resign. We called Professor Christopher Bellitto at Kean University to walk us back.

Good morning Professor Bellitto.

CHRISTOPHER BELLITTO: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell me, who was the first ever pope to resign?

BELLITTO: Sure. We think it's a fellow named Pontian in the year 235. Now you have to remember that we're not entirely sure because those first couple of centuries are pretty murky. Christianity is an illegal religion in the Roman Empire and so we don't always have all of the sources that we'd like. But we're pretty sure that Pontian was the first one. He was martyred - or in this case he knew he was going to be martyred because he was going to be deported to a prison on the island of Sardinia, which was known to be so brutal he was clear that he wasn't going to come back. And he didn't want to have a vacuum of leadership so he resigned so that a successor could be chosen.

WERTHEIMER: There are also much more sort of evil sounding stories of cardinals and nobility that the cardinals were working for trying to depose various popes.

BELLITTO: Well, sure. These are really horrible period from about 850 till about 1050. And one of the big papal historians, Eamon Duffy, has calculated that in that period of time one out of three popes died a violent death.

WERTHEIMER: Wasn't there a resignation of a pope whose name was Celestine, Celestine V? What happened with him?

BELLITTO: Celestine V is a really interesting character because he was a very holy man, and sometimes a very holy man doesn't make a very successful pope in a period of time where the papacy is controlled by political families and rival factions.

WERTHEIMER: What are we talking about? What time are we talking about?

BELLITTO: Just at the end of the 13th century, and particularly, I'm talking about the year 1294. There hasn't been a pope for a few years. Nobody can decide. It's a deadlock. And so the cardinals decide to go outside the conclave and elect a hermit, totally unsuited for the politics of the papal court. But the notion was, well, if we elected a holy man, then maybe he'll come into Rome, he'll clean up and we can move forward in a spiritual manner. And he just gets eaten by that court, and within four months, he decides to resign.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the most frequently reason though, for resignation has been an abundance of popes, isn't that right? I mean, where you have more than one pope and somebody has to go.

BELLITTO: That's right. So the worse period in church history is the Great Western Schism from 1378 to 1417, when you have first two and then three popes. I tell my students that this is the here a pope, there a pope, everywhere a pope, pope chapter of church history.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Yes.

BELLITTO: And it's in that period of time that we have the most recent resignation, Gregory XII, and he was the Roman pope. And, in fact, he probably had the best claim to be the legitimate pope, but he decides to metaphorically fall on his sword.

WERTHEIMER: Obviously, having more than one pope has been a problem for the church, even if it was a mere 600 years ago. But it seems that as though the Vatican is sort of thinking about it now. They're issuing all sorts of press releases to squelch the idea that when Benedict retires there will once again be two popes.

BELLITTO: Well, he has said very clearly, I will renounce the authority. And in that case, de facto, he does not have the authority. He cannot speak with the authority of Saint Peter. While we're in unprecedented territory, we're not in uncharted territory. And in fact, Gregory XII, going back to 1415, lived out his life as a cardinal.

WERTHEIMER: Professor Christopher Bellitto, he's a historian at Kean University in New Jersey. Professor Bellitto, thank you so much.

BELLITTO: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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