Resigned And Removed: Looking At Papal History

Pope Celestine V i i

hide captionPope Celestine V retained papal orders for about six months, then resigned.

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Pope Celestine V

Pope Celestine V retained papal orders for about six months, then resigned.

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The Rev. John O'Malley is a church historian, professor at Georgetown University and author of History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present.

In the long history of the Roman Catholic Church there are two clear, uncontested instances of popes resigning — but that's only the beginning of the story for popes who have been removed prematurely.Though papal lineage can be traced all the way back to St. Peter, the first pope, succession hasn't always been so cut and dried. From contested legitimacy to full schisms, the history of the pontiff walks, at times, a winding road.


Pope Gregory XII

hide captionPope Gregory XII resigned after The Western Schism.

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Looking for a view on whether Pope Benedict should resign from his holy orders? Read why David Clohessy doesn't think he should resign — yet. Or why Kenneth Briggs thinks he should step down.

Papal Resignations

The first pope to resign without question or qualification was Pietro del Morrone, known as Pope Celestine V. He was elected at the age of 85 on July 5, 1296, as the result of a deadlock in a conclave that had already lasted over two years. Until his election Pietro had lived the life of a hermit in central Italy. It was his reputation for holiness that caused the cardinals to turn to him, once it became clear that no cardinal in the conclave could win a majority of votes.

Unfortunately, the new pope had no experience in the complex world of the papacy and barely understood Latin. It soon became clear to everybody, including himself, that he could not carry on. He resigned on Dec. 13, 1296, only six months after his election. Although Dante in his Divine Comedy put him in hell for dereliction of duty, he was canonized in 1313.

The second case was Angelo Correr, known as Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 under pressure from the Council of Constance, a conference of bishops gathered to settle problems in church practices. At this particular meeting the bishops faced The Western Schism. Papal elections were often contested during the Middle Ages, but they were usually settled in a short time. During this schism, complications worsened and resulted in three men claiming a place as pope.

Once the council met it decided that the only solution to the schism — which had lasted 40 years at this point — was to wipe the slate clean and begin all over again with a new pope. Although the council persuaded Gregory to resign, the other two claimants refused and were formally deposed. The council elected a new pope, Martin V, who was universally accepted.


Pope Martin I i i

hide captionPope Martin was a prisoner of Emperor Constans II, by whom he was badly mistreated.

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Pope Martin I

Pope Martin was a prisoner of Emperor Constans II, by whom he was badly mistreated.

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Papal Removals

While Celestine V and Gregory XII formally resigned, some popes (or at least men claiming to be pope) have been deposed against their will. Besides those deposed by the Council of Constance, the best-known and most important case is that of three men claiming papal status who were discharged at the instigation of Emperor Henry III in 1046. Holy Roman emperors, like Henry III, were no strangers to intervening in papal conflicts.

At the the Synod of Sutri, another council set up to review papal conflict, all three were removed, which cleared the way for the emperor to place his own candidate on the throne. The new pope, Clement II, turned out, as the emperor hoped, to be a reformer who initiated a turn for the better that led to a general reform of the papacy, the so-called Gregorian Reform.

But papal history is rarely simple. One of the popes deposed at the Synod of Sutri, Silvester III, had been forced out of Rome earlier in the year, so he is sometimes considered to have resigned. Another deposed at Sutri was Silvester's enemy, Benedict IX. He had in fact earlier in the year resigned in favor of a man who took the name Gregory VI. But Benedict again in 1047 claimed the throne, seemingly successfully. He died a year later.

Pope Benedict IX

hide captionPope Benedict IX, who was deposed at the at the Synod of Sutri.

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Silvester and Benedict thus raise the question of other popes who "resigned" but under duress. Martin I, for instance, is said to have approved or at any rate not condemned the election in his lifetime of another pope, Eugene I, in 654. But Martin at the time was a prisoner of Emperor Constans II, by whom he was badly mistreated.

Emperor Otto I deposed Pope Benedict V in 964. Since the pope refused to defend himself against Otto's charges, some authorities consider his action the equivalent of resignation.

For John XVIII — who left the papacy in 1009 — the sources are too scanty to reveal whether he resigned of his own volition or was forced into doing so.

Finally, there is the curious case of Pope Marcellinus. Elected in 296, Marcellinus presided without incident over the Church of Rome for seven years. Then he allegedly defected and took part in sacrificing to idols. The story of his defection has been challenged, but the evidence for it is convincing. Reliable documents treat the story as an established fact — even as they try to present it favorably by saying he immediately repented, recanted and died a martyr.

As these instances of papal resignations, voluntary and forced, make clear, the history of the papacy is both complicated and fascinating. The way popes conceive their duties today is strikingly different from the way they conceived them earlier, and their relationship to secular and even ecclesiastical institutions has also changed.

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