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?

Grottaferrata and Santo Lucà (Part 3)

A reply from Santo Lucà!

I finally received a reply to the e-mail that I sent to Professor Lucà on May 31. In it I posed two questions: 1) Did he think that the young Theophylact, the future Pope Benedict IX, might have been educated by the Basilian monks? This would have meant that he would have been one of the very few Romans who could speak and read Greek. 2) Did he believe the legend that Benedict and his brothers retired as monks in Grottaferrata?

His answer to the first question was this:

credo proprio di no; sono i monaci ‘basiliani’ che parlano il latino!

He says that he does not believe so. There are Basilian monks who speak Latin.

I have to wonder if he understood what I was getting at. Theophylact’s family was the most prominent in central Italy. Not only was the monastery near to the family’s home in Tusculum; Theophylact’s grandfather had actually donated the land on which it was constructed. If Theophylact was not educated by the Basilians, then he must have been instructed elsewhere. Surely his family must have tried to provide him what he needed for the career that they planned for him.

I have read that he was a student of Lawrence, but Lawrence was in Montecassino for much of Theophylact’s youth, and Montecassino is much further away. In addition he became Archbishop of Amalfi in 1029, three years before Theophylact assumed the throne. So, it does not seem unreasonable to speculate whether Theophylact’s family might have taken advantage of its relationship with the monks to help groom Theophylact for his imminent career as pontiff. And if the monks did perform this service, I find it hard to believe that they did not teach him the Greek language, which they used for all of their services.

There are a few other facts that support this hypothesis. The three Tusculan popes (Benedict IX and his two uncles) had much better relations with the Greek church than either their predecessors or their successors. In fact, the Great Schism occurred in 1054 in the very first stable pontificate after Benedict’s! Furthermore, it is fairly well documented that Benedict IX and St. Bartholomew, the hegumen of the abbey, had a pretty good relationship throughout his pontificates.

The answer to the second question was:

assolutamente no!

You do not need to be a native-born Italian to figure out what that one means. I think that the legend that Benedict repented, retired, and became a Basilian monk was perpetrated by Luke, the Basilian monk who wrote the biography of St. Bartholomew. Here is what Capitani wrote about the subject in his his entry in Enciclopedia dei Papi (2000):

Le ultime considerazioni fatte circa i documenti del 1055 e del 1056, nei quali il nome di Benedetto appare ancora – e non quello di Teofilatto, come ci si sarebbe dovuti attendere, in caso di pentimento del Tuscolano – escludono ogni verosimiglianza delle notizie contenute nelle agiografie di Bartolomeo di Grottaferrata, che avrebbe operato una sorta di conversione sul “terribile” pontefice, ritiratosi in penitenza nel monastero.

Basically this says that the erstwhile pope was still using the name Benedict in official documents in 1055 and 1056, the year of his death. So, it seems very unlikely that he would have repented as stated in the hagiografies of Bartholomew of Grottaferrata. If he did not abandon his claim to the papacy, he almost certainly did not become a monk either.

I sure would like to know what did happen to him in the decade or more after he lost the papacy.

Grottaferrata and Santo Lucà (Part 2)

Pope Benedict IX was the interlocutor!

I finally finished translating Santo Lucà’s “GRAECO-LATINA DI BARTOLOMEO IUNIORE, EGUMENO DI GROTTAFERRATA († 1055 ca.)?”, the forty-six-page document that I found on the Internet. I previously wrote about my interest in Grottaferrata here.

Professor Lucà studied some anonymous scholia in Grottaferrata and the Vatican Libraries and deduced that the author could only have been St. Bartholomew the Younger, the fourth hegumen (abbot) of the Basilian monastery in Grottaferrata from 1015 or so until his death in 1055. St. Bartholomew held the office during the entire pontificate of the controversial Pope Benedict IX and the traumatic transition that followed it. More astounding to me was the fact that Professor Lucà identified the “interlocutor” of the scholia as Pope Benedict himself, who came from nearby Tusculum. In fact, the pope’s grandfather, Count Gregory, donated the land for the monastery. My fanciful account of Benedict IX’s pontificate can be found here.

A little historical background is in order. From 800 until 1870 the pope was the de facto king of central Italy. In the first half of the eleventh century southern Italy was mostly controlled by the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople. Northern Italy was largely under the egis of the Holy Roman Empire based in Germany. So, the pope was both head of the Christian Church and the ruler of a state that served as a buffer between the two empires. He was both a “spiritual power” and a “temporal power.” Unlike the other royal entities, however, the papacy had only vague rules of succession and until the end of the eleventh century the cardinals had nothing to do with papal succession. The new pope was often selected by a powerful ruler or a political faction.

Pope Benedict IX’s uncles, Pope Benedict VIII and Pope John XIX, held the papacy from 1012-1032 following a decade that saw three popes who were hand-picked by the Crescentius family, the major rivals of the counts of Tusculum. Benedict IX reigned from 1032 to 1045, at which point the Crescentius family organized a rebellion, deposed him, and installed one of its own as Pope Sylvester III. Fifty days later Benedict and his allies drove Sylvester back to Sabina, where he resumed his role of bishop and renounced his claim to the papacy. Thus began Benedict IX’s second pontificate, an unprecedented event in Church history.

Not long thereafter Pope Benedict voluntarily resigned the papacy (also unprecedented) in favor of his godfather, John Gratian, who paid Benedict a staggering sum of money for the privilege of becoming Pope Gregory VI. Within a year of this event, the young Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, came to Italy and presided over the Council of Sutri, which deposed Benedict and Sylvester, neither of whom attended, as well as Gregory, who was present and admitted to using simony to obtain the papacy. Henry then installed a German bishop as Pope Clement II and went back to Germany with Gregory as his prisoner.

Pope Clement died after only ten months, and his death was, according to Professor Lucà, the occasion that motivated Bartholomew to compose his scholia. Benedict evidently had made clear his designs on returning to the Throne of Peter. In the scholia Bartholomew expressed his opinion that his friend Benedict should discard his desires and retire permanently. He reasoned that the Romans and the German emperor would not not tolerate Benedict’s return, and, in fact, the monk was right. Pope Benedict was able to reclaim the papacy, but his third pontificate ended when, at the behest of the emperor, Boniface of Tuscany, who had spearheaded the effort to restore Benedict to the papacy only a few months earlier, brought his army to Rome and forced the Tusculan pope to flee for good. The new pope was another German, who took the name Damasus II.

Bartholomew, who was a friend and confidante of Pope Benedict, wrote in the scholia concerning a number of other related subjects. He said that there could only be one pope and one emperor. The pope was in Rome (the west) and the emperor was in Constantinople (the east). He was right to be concerned about the conflict between the two cities. The great schism occurred less than a decade later in 1054.

Last week I sent an e-mail to Professor Lucà in which I posed two questions. 1) Did he think that the young Theophylact, the future Pope Benedict IX, might have been educated by the Basilian monks? This would have meant that he would have been one of a very few Romans who could speak and read Greek. 2) Did he believe the legend that Benedict and his brothers retired as monks in Grottaferrata?

I sure hope that he responds.

* * *

It is difficult to explain why the Church has always considered the pontificate of Sylvester III as legitimate. In a very similar situation involving Pope John XII, the interloper has always been adjudged an anti-pope. It is also difficult to explain how it is possible for the pontificates of Gregory VI and Clement II to be legitimate. If they were, how could Benedict just resume ruling the Church when they were out of the picture?

It is fruitless to puzzle over these matters. The fact is that on several occasions it could not have been clear to anyone who was really the pope, and sometimes the situation was not resolved for years. Furthermore, the official list is not much help. In fact, it was revised as recently as the twentieth century. Someone in the Vatican determined that Pope Cletus and Pope Anacletus were actually the same person and that Pope Donus II never existed at all. The most enigmatic name remaining on the list is probably Adrian V (1276), who is still considered a legitimate pope even though he never got around to being ordained as a priest.

And if you think that the pope must be celibate, you are wrong. Pope Adrian III (884-885) was not only married; he even lived with his wife while he was pope. During his pontificate his daughter was abducted and murdered.

I used to read a lot of fiction. Now I prefer history. I find that it is much more imaginative.

Grottaferrata and Santo Lucà

Greek meets Latin in Grottaferrata.

Grottaferrata is a town in the Alban Hills twenty kilometers south-southeast of Rome. Its primary claim to fame is its exarchic monastery of St. Mary, which was established in 1004 and has been continually in operation ever since. The land was donated to St. Nilus the Younger, the first “hegumen” or abbot, by Gregory, Count of Tusculum. Count Gregory is not remembered so much for what he did as for whom he sired. He is the only man in the history of the world who can claim to be the father of two popes, Benedict VIII (1012-1024) and John XIX (1024-1032). He is also the grandfather of the notorious Pope Benedict IX.

The monastery in Grottaferrata is run by Basilian monks. Unlike the other orders of monks in the Roman Church, the Basilians have long been associated with the Greeks. This particular monastery is unique in that the priests there still perform religious ceremonies using the ancient Greek rites, not the Roman rites. Nevertheless, they have always stayed in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The monks have toiled for centuries to end the schism between the two Churches. Despite their efforts, the break has endured since 1054. How the break occurred is addressed here.

My interest in the monastery can be traced to my fascination with Pope Benedict IX. Although he was pope for approximately fourteen years, and his is the only name that is on the roster of popes more than once, very little of substance is known about him. He was supposedly very young (one chronicler claimed that he was only ten!) at the time that he became pope, and his behavior as pope was reportedly execrable. However, the reliability of all of these reports is low, and historically verified information about his pontificate is sparse indeed, even in comparison with his immediate predecessors and successors. We do not even know when he was born, and speculation abounds as to what happened to him after he was driven from the papacy in 1048.

I had read that the monastery in Grottaferrata, which is quite close to Pope Benedict’s ancestral home of Tusculum, once had in its possession an inscription that indicated that Benedict and two of his brothers had joined the monastery and become monks and that Benedict had died at Grottaferrata. Apparently the evidence of this was destroyed in World War II, during which time the monastery was bombed by American aircraft.

On October 1, 2011, my traveling companions and I hired a driver to take us to the Alban Hills for the day. It was my idea, of course. I did not know what to expect, but I wanted to see both Tusculum (which was leveled by the Romans in April of 1191) and Grottaferrata. It was a major disappointment. I discovered that Tusculum is now basically a park that surrounds an archeological site that has discovered remains of the Roman town from the imperial days a millennium before the era of my interest. We arrived at Grottaferrata just as the monastery and church were being locked up for the daily riposo, which lasts over two hours. I visited the museum there, but the exhibit only covered the celebration of the 900th anniversary of the monastery back in 1904. I considered requesting that we return to Grottaferrata after lunch, but other considerations made that impractical.

I recently came across a 46-page pdf file on the Internet written by Santo Lucà entitled “GRAECO-LATINA DI BARTOLOMEO IUNIORE, EGUMENO DI GROTTAFERRATA († 1055 ca.)?”. I knew that Bartholomew the Younger was a protege of St. Nilus, and he had been the hegumen of the monastery throughout the pontificate of Pope Benedict IX. In fact, he was considered to be a close confidante of the pontiff. The manuscript concerns the work of an anonymous scholiast, who, according to Professor Lucà, lived and worked in Grottaferrata in the second half of the eleventh century. The ancient author, as part of his duties as a copyist, added his own opinions in the margins of the folios that he was assigned to transcribe.

For the last few weeks I have been struggling to translate the paper. Prof. Lucà, who is one year older than I am, works in the field of Greek paleography, which is about as obscure as it gets, at a university in Rome. He has been able to identify the place and time of the scholia based on historical referents and on the style of handwriting used by the author. I did not even know that this field existed.

As I read through the paper, it became obvious to me that Prof. Lucà had read and analyzed quite a few scholia. Almost all of them were housed either in the Vatican Library or the monastery of Grottaferrata itself. So, Professor Lucà, on a daily basis, seems to have unfettered access to information about this extremely obscure but eventful period that virtually no one else has seen for centuries. Moreover, he has the knowledge and tools to make sense of it. How I envy him!

I wish that I had discovered this before we went to Italy. I might have been able to schedule a meeting with him. Perhaps no more would have come of it than our ill-fated trip to the Alban Hills, but there are a hundred questions that I would love to ask him.