As the world reacts to Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down from the Chair of Peter, Prof. Donald Prudlo, Ph.D., an associate professor of ancient and medieval history for Jacksonville State University, recalls that this is not the first time a pope has resigned from his office, and it may not be the last.
The Holy Father announced his decision to resign as Pope yesterday morning during a consistory, where three forthcoming canonizations were also announced. His resignation will take effect at 8pm on February 28, 2013.
Prof. Prudlo, who specializes in medieval Church history, spoke with ZENIT about Pope Benedict’s announced resignation, and offered some historical context for what this means for the Church.
ZENIT: What were your initial impressions upon hearing the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation?
Prudlo: Shock and disbelief, then worry for the Pope, I am afraid it must be terrible news on the health front. Upon consideration, I think he is doing this to avoid manipulation by those who could use his bodily weakness to damage the Church. I also think it is a stunning witness of the truth of Papal Sovereignty; he freely manifested his resignation, which has to be accepted by no one. This has big constitutional implications. He truly is the sovereign pontiff
ZENIT: Could you provide some historical context with regard to papal resignations?
Prudlo: The first resignation was in 235. Pope St. Pontian was arrested and sent to labor in the mines of Sardinia. To prevent the Church of Rome from being headless, he laid down his office to allow a successor to be named.
Sometimes the popes were pressured to resign, like St. Silverius in the 530s. He refused to resign, and was starved to death. That does however demonstrate that people knew that popes had the ability to resign. Benedict IX was a terrible pope in the 1040s, who resigned and attempted to become pope again several times, according to reliable reports he eventually retired to a life of penance at Grottaferrata.
St. Peter Celestine is the most famous. His election ended a 3 year conclave, but he was an unworldly hermit, known for his holiness. He proved inept at the high-stakes political world of the Roman curia. He announced to a consistory of cardinals in 1294 that he was freely resigning the papacy. His successor Boniface VIII made that declaration official Church law in 1298, in the book of laws known as the Liber Sextus. In 1415 Gregory XII resigned the papacy (the last to do so), on the condition that the Council of Constance accept his authority to elect a successor. His sacrifice ended the Great Western Schism.
ZENIT: Why is it so rare for a pope to resign?
Prudlo: Most popes have felt that this was a charge directly from God and felt compelled to remain in the office until death. That said, people live much longer now (though we have had popes older than Benedict), and many maladies are attendant upon old age. If a pope is convinced through prayer that he may hinder the Church’s mission then, like Celestine V, Gregory XII, and Benedict they may lay down their office. The Holy Spirit guides the church in all such matters.
ZENIT: Is there anything significant about having a pope resign in this day and age? Is this something we might see more of in the future?
Prudlo: This may be precedent setting. As the presence of a former pope can certainly act as a steadying influence on a new pope, I suspect that Benedict will continue to actively advise the new pope. He can be assured of his legacy there.
I would not be surprised, however, if future popes find it much easier to resign. Of course that will depend on how this example goes.