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.

The Two New Saints

I did not see this coming.

The Vatican recently announced that Pope Francis would canonize two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. This is truly astounding news. Only three popes since the eleventh century have been canonized. Each of those should probably include an asterisk.

  • Detail of a fresco in Castel Nuovo in Naples.

    Detail of a fresco in Castel Nuovo in Naples.

    Celestine V (1294) should never have been pope. He was a reclusive and ascetic hermit, who had had little contact with humankind for decades. He never even made it to Rome; he took up residence in King Charles’s castle in Naples. After five months of incompetent bungling he was persuaded to resign by his successor, Boniface VIII. The latter promptly imprisoned Celestine, who died in his cell. The King of France, Philip the Fair, hated Pope Boniface, and, after the pontiff died, the king worked hard both to have Celestine canonized and Boniface condemned. He succeeded in the first, but not the second.
  • PiusVFacePius V (1566-1572) was a Grand Inquisitor before he was elected pontiff. He set up a network of spies and informants who fingered people who blasphemed or expressed opinions that could be considered heretical. He also tirelessly strove to rid the world of all forms of evil, and that included Protestants. He conspired with Catherine de’ Medici to exterminate the Huguenots in France. Their plot culminated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which occurred a short time after the pope’s death in 1572.
  • PiusXPius X (1903-1904) campaigned against “modernism,” which in his mind included nearly everything that St. Thomas Aquinas had not thought of by the time that he died in 1274. He banned much beautiful music (Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, et al.) from the liturgy. I have long thought that he must have been tone-deaf. He continued the fiction perpetrated by his two predecessors that he was a prisoner in Vatican City. He did not take sides in the runup to World War I, but he definitely admired Kaiser Wilhelm.

All three of these men were saintly, in that they prayed both fervently and continually throughout their lives. I, for one, am happy, however, that very few of their prayers were answered.

When Pope Benedict XVI paid scant attention to the cries of “santo subito” that rang out during the burial ceremonies for his predecessor, John Paul II, I assumed that canonization would not be coming for decades, if then. Many popes have been beatified, but naming one as a saint has been considered by Vatican-watchers as a politically risky move. I never thought that John XXIII (1958-1963) had a chance.

TimeSmallBoth of these pontificates were somewhat controversial. Pope John called the Second Vatican Council, which, in the minds of millions of conservative Catholics, started the Church on a long downward slide. A strong feeling persists among a very large segment of the clergy that he lowered standards to the point that the Church lost its way. They played guitars during mass! Also, he told jokes.

MOYSmallThe highlights of John Paul’s pontificate included his many celebrated trips around the world. The first visit to Poland helped to coalesce the Polish people around the idea of Christianity as a counter to Communism. There is no question that the pope contributed a great deal to the struggle that eventually resulted in the fall of the Iron Curtain. The millions of dollars that the Church directed to the Polish Labor Union Solidarity enabled it to become a political force strong enough to oust the puppet regime and begin the process of freeing the central European countries from the clutches of Russia.

Pundits have speculated that John Paul’s seeming disinterest in the many clerical sex abuse cases would weigh heavily against the prospects of his canonization. Among the clerical hierarchy this might not be that important. Most of them would have done the same thing if they were in his brogans.

Bishop Paulius Marcinkus.

Bishop Paulius Marcinkus.

On the other hand, there is the little matter of the Vatican Bank scandal that spanned the last years of Paul VI’s pontificate and the early years of John Paul’s. If there were still a Devil’s Advocate process, I wonder how the person defending the pope’s reputation would answer the charges that the bank lost hundreds of millions of dollars while engaging in schemes that involved some of the shadiest characters around, at least two of whom ended up murdered. The director of the bank, an American named Paulius Marcinkus, was indicted by the Italian government, but he was never arrested because he avoided Italian soil by staying in Vatican City. Pope John Paul definitely protected Bishop Marcincus, who had twice saved the pontiff’s life by subduing armed assailants.

SGSmallOne good thing that may come from this unusual event is to diminish the emphasis on so-called miracles. These two men did not walk on water; in fact Pope John hardly ever walked on land because in his time the pontiff was still carried around in the outrageous sedia gestatoria! The miracles mentioned these days almost always are based upon testimony that someone was cured of a fatal disease or injury because someone prayed to the new saint or used an object related to him to effect a cure.

I assumed from what I had read that the conservatives in the Curia were too powerful for any pontiff to consider nominating John Paul II, much less John XXIII, for canonization. In theory the pope can do whatever he wants, but every pope in the last few centuries has been careful about stepping on the toes of those of high rank. Maybe their power was just overrated; maybe Pope Francis just doesn’t care. It will be interesting to see if any backstabbing results from this.

I know one thing: conservative American Catholics cannot be happy. John XXIII was an unrepentant liberal, and John Paul II, although conservative when it came to doctrinal matters, had absolutely no use for George W. Bush and his wars. He personally persuaded several leaders to vote against the UN resolutions concerning the invasion of Iraq.

Papal Resignations

Very few popes have ever resigned.

Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he will resign at the end of the month. This is indeed big news because very few of the 263 popes have resigned, and almost every one of those occasions was very controversial.

I have already encountered quite a bit of misleading and outright erroneous information concerning papal resignations. For example, the New York Times website quoted Donald Prudlo, associate professor of history at Jacksonville (AL) State University:

At the end of the 13th century, a very holy hermit named Peter was elected as Pope Celestine V in order to break a deadlock in the conclave that had lasted nearly three years. He was elected because of his personal holiness, sort of a unity candidate. And once he got there, being a hermit, not used to the ways of the Roman Curia, he found himself somewhat unsuited to the task, that it wasn’t just holiness but also some shrewdness and prudence that was also required. So within six months he knew that he was really unequal to the task, and so he gathered the cardinals together in a consistory, just as was recently done, a couple hours ago, and he announced to the cardinals his intention to resign.

Well, he got the time period right. God only knows why the cardinals selected this recluse in the first place. Living alone in a cave in the mountains, the man had eschewed human contact entirely for decades. A letter signed by the hermit had been sent to the conclave. It warned the cardinals that God would wreak vengeance on them and all Christianity if they did not forthwith select a new pope. The cardinals reportedly were so impressed with him that they set aside their previously irreconcilable political differences and endorsed Peter. That is the official account, but anyone who has studied the conclaves of that era would detect the odor of fish. Cardinals are not allowed to disclose the details of conclaves. So, no one can contest the official version.

To me the most annoying aspect of Professor’s Prudlo’s quote is the phrase “once he got there.” “There” must, of course, be Rome, of which the pontiff is by definition the bishop. However, Pope Celestine never once set foot in the Eternal City. Instead, King Charles II of Naples, who may well have been responsible for the letter, convinced His Holiness to take up residence in Castel Nuovo in his capital. Celestine was a total disaster as pope, probably the most incompetent and irresponsible pontiff ever, which is saying something. He kept no records and even bestowed the same benefice (income-generating office) on more than one person. At the instigation of the king, who was French, he appointed a large number of cardinals, most of whom were also French. Celestine never “announced to the cardinals his intention to resign.” Rather, Cardinal Benedict Caetani, drew up a letter of resignation and somehow induced the pontiff to sign it.

That is not the end of the story. Caetani was then swiftly elected as Pope Boniface VIII, and for no specific reason he cast the former pope in prison, which is where he died. I wrote about this episode here.

Very little is known of the popes of the first few centuries. The story has come down that Pope Pontian, who was exiled to the salt mines of Sardinia, might have resigned so that someone else could serve as the Bishop of Rome (whom no one thought of as the pope at the time). He might have done so, but then again some of his predecessors might also have hung up their miters. In fact, Clement I, the fourth pope, wrote in some of his letters that St. Peter himself had consecrated him (Clement) as Bishop of Rome. If so, then the first pope to resign must have been the very first pope, St. Peter!

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. What a story that was! At the time there were three claimants to the papal throne, and all three arguably had legitimate cases. One of them, John XXIII (no, not that John XXIII) called a council in Constance, a city next to a very deep lake in southern Germany, in order to resolve the situation. He badly misjudged the politics, however, and the council put him on trial for five felonies, deposed him, and threw him in prison. A second claimant, Benedict XIII, had been holed up in a corner of Spain for some time. He refused to come to the council and was also eventually deposed.

Pope Gregory also rejected the council’s summons. However, after the other two claimants had been deposed, he sent a letter through an emissary in which he expressed his willingness to resign. It is worth noting that he died before the council could agree on his successor, Pope Martin V. So, assuming that Pope Benedict lives to see his successor chosen, it will be the first time since the thirteenth century that the Church will have both a pope and a living ex-pope.

Did you notice anything strange in the above paragraph? Martin V was chosen, not by the college of cardinals but by the council, which included many clergy of much lower rank and was heavily influenced by Emperor Sigismund. The problem was that during the Western Schism, which had gone on for decades, there had been multiple papal claimants each supported by influential spiritual and civil leaders. Each pontiff had appointed cardinals loyal to him and had excommunicated those appointed by rivals. So, it was easier for everyone at Constance just to ignore canon law for a while. Hundreds of those who refused to go along found their way to the bottom of the lake. The surviving cardinals were reinstated, regardless of who had appointed them. What else could they do? Pope Martin himself had been appointed by the deposed and disgraced John XXIII.

I wrote about the Council of Constance here.

I cannot leave this subject without bringing up the one pope who certainly resigned of his own accord. Here is what Professor Prudlo had to say about Pope Benedict IX:

And then, at a rather low point in the Church’s history, Pope Benedict IX, in the 1040s, resigned and attempted to re-acquire the papacy several times. But according to good reports, he too died in penance at the monastery of Grottaferrata outside of Rome.

In point of fact, no one disputes the fact that Pope Benedict IX sold the papacy to his godfather, John Gratian, who became Pope Gregory VI. At the time Benedict had been pontiff for more than a decade, but he was still a young man, and he wanted to get married. However, his prospective father-in-law would only approve if Benedict abdicated. Yes, some popes have been married, but no pope that we know of ever got married while he was pontiff.

After Gregory had been deposed by the emperor, a jilted Benedict managed to acquire the papacy again for a short while. The “good reports” that he retired to Grottaferrata really amount to the word of one monk. Via e-mail I personally asked Santo Lucà, a professor at La Sapienza who is probably the world’s expert on the history of Grottaferrata, whether he thought that the pope had retired there. His answer: “Assolutamente no!

* * *

So why have so few popes resigned? The primary answer is that from 800 until 1870 the pope was the monarch of central Italy. Most of the popes of that period amassed great amounts of wealth and spread it among family members. They did not resign for the same reason that very few kings and queens have abdicated — they knew that they had the best gig in town. Furthermore, unlike kings and queens, the popes had very limited control over their successors. In many cases the successor had little respect for the work of the predecessor, and the popes knew that. The best way for a pope to protect his historical legacy was to stretch it out as long as possible. When the duties became too much for an aging pontiff, he customarily assigned the most important tasks to a relative, usually a nephew.

Since 1870 the popes have been too busy to resign. Pius IX devoted himself to overthrowing the Italian (and to an extent American) government in order to reclaim his territory. Leo XIII was busy with his poetry, his snuff, his movies, and his cocaine-laced wine. Pius X fought against modernism. Benedict XV fought for peace. Pius XI and Pius XII had to confront the Nazis, the fascists, and the communists. John XXIII (yes, that John XXIII) tried to drag the Church into the twentieth century. Paul VI tried to smooth the feathers that had been ruffled by his predecessor. John Paul I only lasted a month. John Paul II worked to destroy communism and to restore conservative traditions.

Only Benedict XVI had no clear mission. It is a little-known fact that he had asked to resign when John Paul II was still alive. Why are people surprised that an 86-year-old man would want some rest?