Pope's surprise resignation liberates cardinal electors
Opinion:The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI with effect from 8pm on February 28th has sent commentators scurrying to the textbooks for historical precedents. In fact, there are none.
A handful of popes did indeed abdicate in the course of the Middle Ages. All but one of them, however, did so with the medieval equivalent of a gun to their heads.
They were forced out by powerful rulers or, as in the case of Gregory XII in 1415, by a general council determined to end the nightmare of three claimants to the papacy in a bewildered and divided Christendom.
The nearest approximation to Benedict’s dramatic move was the abdication in 1294 of Pope Celestine V, the saintly hermit elected in his 85th year by cardinals hoping for an “angel pope” who would transcend the politics in which the papacy was mired.
Predictably, he turned out to be politically naive and hopelessly inept and was badgered into resignation after only six months in office by the ruthless cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who immediately succeeded him as Boniface VIII.
The new pope prudently had the old man arrested and confined to a tower,
where he died from septicaemia a year later.
Benedict is unlikely to share Celestine’s fate, for all the sabre-rattling by high-profile secularists calling for his arrest for alleged collusion in the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. But papal resignation has always been controversial.
Medieval commentators were deeply divided about the legitimacy if not the possibility of such an abdication. Dante probably had Celestine in mind as the shadowy figure in the first circle of Hell “who by his cowardice made the great refusal”: Petrarch, by contrast, considered Celestine’s action as a model of exemplary virtue.
Papal departure has been mooted in modern times too. Pope Pius XII was said to have lodged a letter of resignation with his Vatican aides during the second World War. It was to take effect should he be arrested by the Gestapo and transported as a prisoner to Germany.
Many people thought and said that Pope Benedict’s titanic predecessor, John Paul II, should have resigned long before his death in 2005 since age and Parkinson’s disease had manifestly long since rendered him incapable of managing the world’s largest international organisation. But the pope is a religious icon as well as a chief executive. John Paul’s heroic and deeply moving struggle through the last weeks of his life silenced, if they did not exactly answer, those bleak utilitarian criticisms.
Whether or not one agreed that the papacy was a cross laid on a man’s shoulders which must be borne to the end, Wojtyla’s courage in the face of the pain and humiliations of his condition were widely perceived as a vindication of the dignity of old age, and a demonstration of how a Christian should die.
John Paul II’s heroic persistence was certainly in Pope Benedict’s mind in drafting his own resignation statement.
In it he acknowledges that the papal ministry is exercised not only in “words and deeds” but “no less with prayer and suffering”, an unmistakable allusion to his predecessor’s controversial final years.
But Pope Benedict is clearly more conscious than his predecessor was that in the absolute autocracy that is the papacy, if the pope is not doing his job, somebody else is, behind the scenes.