Three Popes Resigned

What became of them?

Most popes died while still in office. However, quite a few popes were deposed by one means or another, and at least a handful were assassinated or, in at least one case, lynched by a mob. Only four pontiffs certainly resigned, and one of them, Gregory XII, would have been deposed by the Council of Constance if he had not agreed to its demand for his resignation.

The most recent resignation was by Benedict XVI in 2013. He spent his first few weeks in retirement at the summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. Since then he has only occasionally appeared publicly. I was unable to determine where he is living now, but all of his public appearances have been in Italy. He probably has an apartment in Rome. Hardly anyone seems to care about him, but if you do, you can buy some memorabilia here.

There is no mystery about what happened to Pope Celestine V after he resigned. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him captured and imprisoned. He died shortly thereafter. You can read the fascinating details of his selection and his short pontificate here.

The first pope to resign was Benedict IX, back in 1045. My favorite pope was deposed the previous year, but he gathered his supporters together and regained the Throne of Peter. His second pontificate, however, lasted only a few months. He decided to resign in order to get married. As unlikely as this sounds, I have never read anyone who has posited an alternative explanation. In any case, he evidently negotiated a large sum of cash in exchange for turning the papacy over to his godfather, John Gratian, who became Pope Gregory VI.

At the insistence of the emperor, Gregory was deposed by the Council of Sutri and replaced with the emperor’s choice, who took the name of Clement II. Clement died after only a few months, and Benedict, who apparently never did get married, retook the Throne. Eventually the emperor managed to gather enough force in Italy to force Benedict to flee in July of 1048.

What happened to Benedict after that? It is hard to explain why no one seems to know. Luke, the hegumen (abbot), of the Basilian monastery at Grottaferrata, wrote a biography of one of his predecessors, St. Bartholomew the Younger. In it he asserted that Benedict came to the saint, repented, became a Basilian monk, and died at the monastery. A plaque commemorating these events was reportedly on display at the monastery (which still is in operation 1,000 years later), but the marker was destroyed in the allied bombings of World War II, or so the story goes. The Catholic Encyclopedia endorses this tale.

I have searched diligently for Hegumen Luke’s work, but I have been unable to locate it. It was translated into Italian a few years ago, but my efforts to obtain a copy were unsuccessful. The most complete write-up that I have discovered is in the book Deaths of the Popes by Wendy J. Reardon. Benedict IX’s period as Pope Emeritus is discussed on p. 81.

There were no fact-checkers in the Middle Ages. Is Luke’s story credible? I posed this very question to Santo Lucá, a scholar who has devoted a great deal of study to the documents at Grottaferrata. I discussed his unequivocal negative response in a previous entry.

If Benedict IX did not join the monastery, what happened to him? I wish that I had Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. I would definitely set it to the middle of the eleventh century.

Reflections on the Conclave

Assessment, predictions, etc.

Now that the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI has come to an end, it is time to reflect on its achievements and shortcomings. Actually, it is difficult to think of much to put in either category. Benedict continued virtually all of the policies of his predecessor. He had none of Pope John Paul II’s flair, however, and nothing that he did comes close to matching the latter’s accomplishment of serving as the wedge that toppled the Iron Curtain in Europe. I would say that no pope since the end of the Papal States in 1870, with the exception of the short-lived John Paul I, has been less influential. If Benedict XVI is remembered for anything, it will be for his attention to his appearance. He hired a new tailor, wore fabulously jeweled crosses, and, of course, he often appeared in his red Prada loafers. He was almost certainly the most style-conscious pontiff since Paul II, the flamboyant Venetian of the cinquecento. Benedict even made a splashy exit by taking a helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, which can be reached by car in an hour or so.

The conclave was much shorter than I expected, but the outcome was exactly as I predicted. The electors chose a male Catholic. According to the reports of the most reliable vaticanisti, no woman received more than 20 percent of the vote on any scrutiny (the official term for a round of voting in a conclave), and no Jews or Muslims were seriously considered.

The new pope selected the name Francis. He has not personally disclosed the thought process behind this choice, but a Vatican spokesman has announced that “Cardinal Bergoglio had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice.” So, it appears that, until the pontiff expresses himself, we must conclude that he was dedicating his pontificate to the memory of St. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century ascetic who founded the order now known as the Franciscans.

So, what can we expect from a new pope named Francis? Based upon my years of research of papal history and fully cognizant that my heretofore perfect record of pontifical predictions is on the line, I confidently make the following two predictions:

  1. There will be no change in the official Church policies on ordination of women or abortion.
  2. We have seen the last of the red Prada shoes and the bejeweled accoutrements for a while.

That a Jesuit such as Cardinal Bergoglio would take the name of the founder of another order is certainly peculiar. There have been a couple of Franciscan popes before. By some strange twist of fate, in fact, the pope who suppressed the Jesuit order, Clement XIV, was a Franciscan.

Evidently Pope Francis wants Catholics to focus their attention on the spiritual matters that were important to St. Francis in the thirteenth century rather than the material concerns that he had completely forsaken. As a matter of fact this same dichotomy was the focus of a rather famous controversy that came to a head ninety-eight years after the saint’s death in 1226.

A lot had transpired in the interim. The order established by St. Francis had grown dramatically. The popes for the last seventeen years had not been living in Rome; instead they had usurped the bishop’s residence in Avignon in the Provence and had transformed it into a colossal palace/fortress for their own use. The resident at the time was an irascible and miserly figure named John XXII. His was the sort of pontificate that Scrooge McDuck might have been aspired to if he had been a Roman Catholic cleric.

The Fransiscan order at the time was split into two sects, the “Conventuals” and the “Spirituals.” The latter argued that St. Francis and Jesus before him had ordered their followers to reject all of their worldly possessions in pursuit of spiritual salvation. The Conventuals opted for a more lenient and less literal interpretation. A previous pope and council had ruled in favor of the Spirituals, but Pope John issued a bull that endorsed the position of the Conventuals.

At this point the story gets interesting. The Spirituals argued that the matter had already been settled by the pope and council. The fact that John XXII was contradicting established doctrine was irrefutable evidence that he was not in fact a legitimate pope! John XXII responded with another blustery bull, Quia Quorundam, in which he declared their positions as outright heresy.

Pope John meant business. Sixty-four of the Spirituals were summoned to Avignon. Some were remanded to the Inquisition, and four of them were burned at the stake in Marseilles.

Incidentally, when Pope John XXII died in 1334 he was so rich that some people thought that he had found the Philosopher’s Stone and that it gave him the power to transmute base metals into gold.

Choosing the Next Pope

Who will emerge from the next conclave?

In a short while pope #266 will be chosen. Who will it be? I have no idea, but I do know a few things about the way that he will be chosen.

The group that chooses the pope is known as the “Sacred College of Cardinals.” At one time the cardinals served as the link between the pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, and the suburbicarian dioceses of the surrounding countryside. In those days there were only a handful of cardinals, and their primary job was to meet with the pope and then return to the hinterlands to explain his policies to the people there. After the Roman Empire virtually abandoned Italy in the fourth century, the pope was forced to take on many civil responsibilities. From 800 through 1870 the pope was universally recognized as the monarch of a strip of central Italy that stretched from coast to coast. The number of cardinals increased, but they still served as advisers and legates.

There is, in fact, no limit on the number of cardinals, and there are no guidelines (that I know of) for the qualifications. All (or at least nearly all) of the current cardinals are bishops. That is a relatively recent development. In the nineteenth century, for example, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli served as Secretary of State for Pope Pius IX, and he never even became a priest. One cardinal, a Portuguese prince, was only seven-years old when he received his red hat. He probably had to grow into it.

Nowadays, “cardinal” is considered a rank that allows the recipient to wear a variety of red garments and to vote for the pope. When a cardinal reaches the age of eighty, however, although he is still allowed to wear red, he can no longer vote for the pope. So, Pope Benedict will have absolutely no say in choosing his successor.

Well, I should probably amend that last statement to say that he will have no direct say in choosing his successor. Of the 117 electors, 67 were appointed by Pope Benedict. All of the others were appointed by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Since these two popes had remarkably similar ideas on how the Church should be managed, it seems inevitable that the next pope will not favor radically different notions.

The cardinals have been choosing the pope for about half of the history of the Church. That policy was implemented in 1059 by Pope Nicholas II. Perhaps the most surprising fact about the history of the papacy is that prior to 1059 there was no established method for selecting the pontiff! Some popes were elected by the Roman citizens, some were elected by the clergy, some were appointed by kings or emperors, and there is no record at all as to how quite a few assumed the office. It was not uncommon for more than one man to claim the papacy, and the matter was occasionally settled violently.

For centuries the papal election took place in whatever city the pope had perished. The electors now always meet in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican to choose the new pontiff. This process is called a conclave, which means “with a key.” The cardinals and a few attendants (Pope Pius XII’s attendants were nuns!) are locked in until they come to agreement. In the past this process has sometimes taken years! The longest one was held in Viterbo, starting in 1268. In 1271 the cardinals finally chose a man (not a priest) who at the time was taking part in the ill-fated Seventh Crusade, but not until after the impatient residents of Viterbo had hired carpenters to remove the roof of the room in which the cardinals had been locked.

All who participate in the conclave are sworn to secrecy. There is no official record of any of the votes or of the process by which the decisions are made. The official explanation is that the electors make themselves open to the Holy Ghost, and the third person of the Trinity inspires them to choose the best man. Some information, however, inevitably leaks out from one source or another. A Jesuit priest named Malachi Martin was a Vatican insider for several twentieth-century conclaves. He claimed that Cardinal Siri was elected pope at two different conclaves. Circumstances allegedly forced him to turn down the office on both occasions.

The essential requirements for being pope are remarkably simple. Each papabile must be a male Catholic, but not necessarily a priest. Many popes were not ordained as priests until after they were elected, and one, Adrian V, never did become one. Incidentally, this certainly qualifies as one of the most inexplicable piece of papal trivia. The pope is, by definition, the Bishop of Rome. Every bishop must be a priest. Therefore, most people would conclude that every pope had been a priest. The lesson to take home is that when it comes to the papacy there is an exception to almost every rule, even the tautologies.

There is no age requirement for the papacy. Pope John XII was a teenager when he was elected in the tenth century. His father made the arrangements (by paying off Roman nobility) for his ascendancy on his deathbed. Pope Benedict IX was also very young at his coronation (yes, the Pope until recently wore a crown called the “tiara”). One monk reported that this Benedict was only ten-years old, but historians today think that he was at least twice that.

I don’t expect the current College of Cardinals to choose another teenager. John XII was evidently murdered by a jealous husband who found him in bed with his wife. Benedict IX, who was accused of equally deplorable shenanigans, was driven from the papacy, regained it, and then sold the office to his godfather so that he could get married. After being jilted by his intended spouse, he eventually regained the throne once more, but he was finally overthrown in a second coup in 1048.

I guarantee that the new pope will not be a woman. The legend of Pope Joan is not taken seriously by any historians.

I doubt that the pope will be married, but it is possible. According to the Bible St. Peter, the first pope, had a wife. Not only was Pope Adrian II (867-872) married, but he lived with his wife after he became pope! A few other popes may have also been married. Many popes fathered children before they assumed the office. Pope Alexander VI had at least eight offspring whom he recognized, and he continued his promiscuous lifestyle as pope, although he traded in his long-time mistress for a newer model. His predecessor, Pope Innocent VIII, may have had twice that many kids. Life was different in fifteenth-century Rome.

The new pope will choose his own name. This tradition was started by the above-mentioned John XII, whose real name was Octavian. Prior to that time popes continued to use their given names. We will get some indication as to the pope’s intentions by his choice. If he chooses Pius, Gregory, or Paul, you can expect him to continue the conservative bent of the last few decades. If he chooses some other name, he may be making some other kind of statement. Benedict XVI, for example, chose his name as a tribute to the two previous Benedicts, who were intellectuals, Benedict XV during World War I and Benedict XIV in the eighteenth century.

No one has ever chosen the name Peter. That would be a striking statement that the new pontiff intended to return the Church to its roots. Don’t hold your breath.