Pope Benedict XVI is only the second pope in the Church’s history we know to have resigned of his own free will—several others have stepped down under circumstances only hazily preserved by history.
The pressures of papal duty resulting in resignation have varied over the centuries.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke Wednesday morning at his last weekly audience of the waning faith he hasn’t enough strength to reinvigorate. Marcellinus (296-304) was pope during the genesis of the Church when faith was strong, but he faced the persecution of Christians under the Romans.
He offered a sacrifice to pagan gods, buckling under imperial pressure, according to an article by Religion and Politics, a Washington University publication. He stepped down shortly afterward, perhaps forced to do so, or deposed.
Benedict IX (1032-1045) resigned when his godfather paid him to, according to a History Magazine article. He was never the most pious of popes, and had acquired the papacy through powerful social connections.
His godfather took the position for himself, assuming the name Gregory VI.
The effects of a sudden papal resignation on the Church have also varied over the centuries.
When Benedict IX wanted to reclaim the papacy, Gregory VI’s right was upheld—but it created division and turbulence, as many felt Gregory had bought the office.
Gregory XII’s resignation in 1415 ended the Great Schism.
At the time, there were three claimants to the papacy: John XII and Benedict XIII claimed the papacy from Avignon, France, and Gregory XII was elected as pope in Rome. When the two Avignon popes were deposed, Gregory XII was convinced to resign so the schism could close and a new pope could be elected.
The Pope Who Freely Resigned
Pope Celestine V is the only other pope known to have resigned of his own free will. He had been a hermit among peasants, a pious man who was later canonized.
But, Religion and Politics says, “a saint, as the cardinals had learned to their regret, could make a very bad pope.”
Celestine V was an incapable administrator; some commentators have said Pope Benedict XVI was also an incapable administrator, but Religion and Politics disagrees: “Celestine was an unlettered hermit of peasant background, the ultimate outsider; Benedict was a respected theologian, a cardinal with long experience in the papal bureaucracy, the ultimate insider.”
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