The announcement from the Vatican that the Pope, Benedict XVI, is to retire on February 28 came as a shock to everyone, not least the Cardinals present in the room .
Much has been written about Benedict’s decision, especially the reasons behind it and more importantly his legacy. It’s also been noted that he is the first Pontiff in 500 years to resign the office of the Papacy. So who were the others?
The last Pope to abdicate was Gregory XII in 1415. His resignation ended the “Western Schism” which came about when the Papacy returned to Rome following the Avignon Papacy. The Schism happened when, under pressure from the mob in Rome to elect a Roman Pontiff the conclave elected Urban VI. Urban had been a respected administrator in the papal chancery at Avignon, but as pope he proved suspicious, reformist, and prone to violent outbursts of temper. Many of the cardinals who had elected him soon regretted their decision: the majority removed themselves from Rome to Anagni, where, even though Urban was still reigning, they elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope on September 20 of the same year. Robert took the name Pope Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon. The second election threw the Church into turmoil. There had been antipopes—rival claimants to the papacy—before, but most of them had been appointed by various rival factions; in this case, a single group of leaders of the Church had created both the pope and the antipope.
By the time Gregory resigned there were 3 Popes although Gregory and the Pisan Pope resigned the Avignon Pope refused to resulting in his excommunication. The Papal conclave established by Gregory then elected Martin V as Pope ending the schism.
The first Pope historically known to resign was Benedict IX (c. 1012 – c. 1056) vilified by writers of the time as being unorthodox, homosexual and guilty of “Many adulteries and murders” in an attempt to rid the Church of this embarrassment his godfather paid Benedict a large sum of money to resign as Benedict wanted to marry. His Godfather became Pope Gregory VI whose short reign was one of turmoil.
Elements of the nobility had arranged the selection of Sylvester III who was soon forced out of Rome by Benedict. With Benedict and Sylvester vying for Power and Gregory’s influence waning a group of the clergy separated from all three “popes” and implored the Holy Roman Emperor – Henry III- to intervene.
Henry duly crossed the Alps and established the council of Sutri which aimed to resolve the dispute. The council stripped Sylvester of all rank and sent him to a monastery while Gregory resigned the Papacy with the words
“I, Gregory, bishop, servant of the servants of God, do hereby adjudge myself to be removed from the pontificate of the Holy Roman Church, because of the enormous error which by simoniacal impurity has crept into and vitiated my election.”
The council convened a day later in Rome to remove Benedict from office, Henry selected his personal confessor as Pope Clement II who reigned just under a year before dying, on his death Benedict returned to the Papacy but was forced out by German troops.
In 1294 Pope Celestine V passed a decree making it permissible for a Pope to Abdicate, he then did so. However his successor Boniface VIII had him captured and imprisoned. Before finally having him murdered 2 years later.
Benedict’s resignation would be the 5th resignation as Pope, although the last was in 1415 he is the first to freely resign since Celestine in 1294. Popes until then have held the office until death, however one suspects that the experience of John Paul II deteriorating in his office and the “machinery of the Vatican rotted around him” and his knowledge that the problems facing the church, the child sex cases and dwindling numbers in the West need fresh Ideas has led to this monumental and shocking announcement.