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The Resignation of Popes

Ed HahnenbergThe world was caught off guard with the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI this past week that he would resign the papacy on February 28th. Citing deterioration of mind and body, the Pope is one of a very few successors to St. Peter to resign the office.

There was confusion as to when the last pope resigned.  The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants. In a prior blog (http://blogs.record-eagle.com/?p=5327#more-5327), I had written that the only Swiss saint, Nicholas of Flue, was born and baptized during the controversial Council of Constance in Constance, Germany, near Lake Constance, which today borders the countries of Austria and Switzerland. The Catholic Church had three men claiming to be pope at the outset of the council in 1414.

It was the age of conciliarism, where, for the first time, a church council had assumed the reins as head of the Church. It all began with King Philip IV of France (1248-1314) who was instrumental in securing the election of Clement V, a Frenchman, to the papacy in 1305. This had an unpopular outcome in Rome, where factionalism made Clement’s life as pope stressful. To escape the oppressive atmosphere, in 1309 Clement chose to move the papal capital to Avignon in France, which was the property of papal vassals at that time.

There were seven popes who resided at Avignon from 1305 to 1378.

1305-1314: Clement V
1316-1334: John XXII
1334-1342: Benedict XII
1342-1352: Clement VI
1352-1362: Innocent VI
1362-1370: Urban V
1370-1378: Gregory XI

Two saints,  Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden are credited with persuading Pope Gregory XI to return the See to Rome. This he did on Jan. 17, 1377. But Gregory’s stay in Rome was plagued with hostilities, and he seriously considered returning to Avignon. Before he could make any move, however, he died in March, 1378.

When Gregory XI moved the See back to Rome, he did so over the objections of the cardinals in France. The man elected to succeed him, Urban VI, was so hostile to the cardinals that 13 of them met to choose another pope  in Anagni in central Italy … Pope Clement VII. Pope Clement VII set up his papacy back in Avignon, but Urban VI in Rome and his supporters refused to acknowledge him as the legitimate pope. Some people supported Urban VI in Rome as the legitimate pope while others supported Clement VII as the legitimate pope. Furthermore, support for these two rival popes often depended on one’s nationality. The French and their allies support the Avignon pope while those who resented France’s influence on the papacy supported the pope in Rome.

In 1409, another group of cardinals hoped to resolve the conflict by holding a church counsel in Pisa. Those in attendance elected a third pope, Alexander V, who was supposed to replace the other two. So there were now three popes all claiming to be the only legitimate leader of the Catholic Church.

Alexander, considered today as an antipope by the Church, died a year after his election in Pisa, and was succeeded by John XXIII (obviously not the pope who called Vatican II into session), but himself an antipope.

Meanwhile Urban VI, claimant pope in Rome died in 1389 and was succeeded by Boniface IX who died in 1404. He, in turn, was succeeded by Innocent VII, who died in 1406. His successor was Gregory XII.

Back in Avignon, Clement VII (today considered an antipope), died in 1394. He was succeeded by antipope Benedict XIII.  In 1398 the French church withdrew its allegiance from the Avignon papacy. Benedict was abandoned by 17 of his cardinals, with only five remaining faithful to him, thus in effect taking Avignon out of the picture.

That left two claimants to the papacy … John XXIII and Gregory XII. In 1415 the Council of Constance brought this clash between papal claimants to an end. Gregory XII and John XIII both agreed to resign. Benedict XIII in Avignon was stubborn and refused to abdicate, but he was declared a schismatic and excommunicated from the Church by the Council in 1417.

In the same year, the Council chose Martin V as the true pope. The council was attended by roughly 29 cardinals, 100 doctors of law and divinity, 134 abbots, and 183 bishops and archbishops, so its credibility as an ecumenical council held sway throughout Western Christendom.

Conciliarism, or the belief that a church council can override papal authority, continued on through Martin Luther’s time. Luther called for a council after being declared a heretic by Pope Leo X. The Catholic Church answered with the Council of Trent, which sealed Luther’s fate as a heretic in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Before I end this blog, news media have reported that an earlier pope was the last one to resign. In the wake of the announcement of Benedict XVI that he would resign at the end of this month, Celestine V has been invoked as the last pontiff to resign – in the 13th century.

Celestine was born in 1215 and felt called to a life of simplicity and solitude. He had withdrawn from society and lived the life of a hermit. Church tradition says he fasted every day except Sunday and kept four Lents a year, surviving on bread and water. He founded, in 1244, the order subsequently named after him, the Celestines. After a period of two years when the papacy was vacant, the future pope was elected by admiring cardinals. With no political experience, Celestine proved to be an especially weak and incompetent pope. He was in his seventies and even protested his election. However, he finally accepted the cardinals’ choice. His papacy ended by his own will barely five months after it began in 1294.

Various parties had opposed his resignation and the new Pope Boniface VIII had reason to worry that one of them might try to reinstall him. Not to worry, though, Celestine had had enough. He died 10 months later after being harassed and even imprisoned for his decision. He was later canonized a saint.

It will be interesting to see who will succeed our present pope. There is the opinion that the new pope will come from Latin America, Africa, or Asia. However, the pope’s brother, also a priest, thinks that a European will be chosen. Believers in the Church-denied prophecies of St. Malachy even suggest that this may be the last pope in history … Peter the Roman. See http://catholicsouthernfront.wordpress.com/st-malachy-papal-list/.

  • Bobdisqus

    Ed I knew we could count on you to explain this popery to us. From the outside looking in it seems a wise decision and a good precedent for his successors to follow. Perhaps you might explain for us the tradition of for life tenure in the papacy that has prevailed in the RCC? I thought there was supposed to be some life lesson about enduring infirmity and being a role model for the faithful?

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      Bob…I think from the inside it also seems a wise decision and a good precedent. I was in St. Peter’s Square to see one of the last public appearances of John Paul II on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2005.

      At that time, John Paul was too ill to celebrate Mass in public and only waved from his apartment window. We all knew he was to die soon and I admired his dedication to suffering; however, some of us thought John Paul II should have resigned earlier. However, Benedict, the pragmatic man that he is, saw the wisdom of not continuing to lead the Church in his state of health.

      Bishops are encouraged to resign at age 75, and if you’re 80, you cannot vote for the new pope. I would say the political and travel demands of the modern papacy are far greater than those of centuries past, although popes and cardinals were known to lead armies on horseback. Julius II, around Luther’s time, is a good example.

      What will be particularly interesting will be an former pope living but a few blocks away from the new pope. That may pose problems for the new pope if he is more liberal than Benedict. It may leave the faithful taking sides. That is precisely what Boniface VIII feared when Celestine V resigned.

    • jeff4

      I personally am hoping the Vatican votes for a woman. Groundbreaking advancement for the equality of women in the catholic church. Forward thinking. Equality. Future. Hope.

      • Ed Hahnenberg

        J4…I know some share your thinking. However, there are no formal requirements other than the candidate be a Catholic male. In theory, one doesn’t even have to be a Cardinal (Or a priest!) to be elected Pope. In practice however, this has not occurred since 1379. There are INFORMAL requirements…unwritten rules if you will, for being elected Pope.1. RANK: One must be a Cardinal to be elected Pope.

        2. AGE: There are no formal age requirements for being elected Pope, but keep in mind that Cardinals are RARELY appointed before age 50. The youngest Cardinal presently serving is 57. Cardinals 80 and over cannot vote for Pope, and no one over 79 has EVER been elected Pope. The window of opportunity, therefore, is from one’s late 50′s to one’s late 70′s. Cardinals in their 60′s are considered to be the ideal age for election.

        3. LANGUAGES: The person who would be Pope must speak at least 3 languages: Latin, Italian, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German are especially good for a potential Pope to know.

      • Ed Hahnenberg

        J4…I know some share your thinking. However, there are no formal requirements other than the candidate be a Catholic male. In theory, one doesn’t even have to be a Cardinal (Or a priest!) to be elected Pope. In practice however, this has not occurred since 1379. There are INFORMAL requirements…unwritten rules if you will, for being elected Pope.1. RANK: One must be a Cardinal to be elected Pope.

        2. AGE: There are no formal age requirements for being elected Pope, but keep in mind that Cardinals are RARELY appointed before age 50. The youngest Cardinal presently serving is 57. Cardinals 80 and over cannot vote for Pope, and no one over 79 has EVER been elected Pope. The window of opportunity, therefore, is from one’s late 50′s to one’s late 70′s. Cardinals in their 60′s are considered to be the ideal age for election.

        3. LANGUAGES: The person who would be Pope must speak at least 3 languages: Latin, Italian, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German are especially good for a potential Pope to know.

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      There is a scene in the humorous film “Hot Fuzz” (2007) starring Simon Pegg as Sergeant Nicholas
      Angel where jealous London superiors conspire to get a top London cop transferred to a small town in the country. It ends with this exchange:

      Nicholas Angel: With respect, sir, you can’t just make people disappear.

      Chief Inspector: Yes I can, I’m the Chief Inspector.

      There’s a parallel here between the Obama administration and his goal for the Republicans by 2014. He wants control of the Republican-held House. He wants them to disappear.

      That aside, Benedict XVII has also disappeared. We will not likely see him again in public. However, no one made him disappear. He did so of his own free will for the good of the Church.

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    Gene…Benedict was actually a liberalizing force in Vatican II. Then he had a change of outlook, seeing all the experimentation that was taking place in the liturgy. This led him to the view that the Church could not go down the path of liberalism, either in liturgy or in doctrinal matters. After all, his teacher Fr. Hanz Kung questioned papal infallibility. For this Kung was stripped in 1979 (but not by Ratzinger) of his missio canonica, his licence to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian. However, Kung remains a priest in good standing and can and does teach, but not as a Catholic theologian. Having been appointed by John Paul II to be defender of the age-old doctrines of the church, Cardinal Ratzinger took on a new, much more conservative persona, keeping tabs on his old friend Kung and other liberal theologians in the Church. As pope, Benedict took on his third persona, preaching love of neighbor to the universal Church. He met with Kung shortly after he became pope and it was a cordial encounter. In terms of substance, Kung said the two men found agreement on matters of social policy, the relationship between faith and reason and between science and religion, and the need for Christianity to collaborate with other world religions in building what Kung has termed a “global ethic.”

    “It’s not that we agree on everything,” Kung said. “But the pope has great empathy for the problems of the world, and wanted to give a positive sign.”

    I use the Kung relationship to illustrate the mind of priest Ratzinger at Vatican II, as Cardinal Ratzinger Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 until 2005, and Pope Benedict, the pastoral pope, from then till the end of this month. Three different personas. I do agree that the liberalizing actions taken by local churches in the period after Vatican II soured him on how local churches, in some cases, sought a more liberal and transparent Church. To his credit, Benedict has opened the Church up for scrutiny, but still maintains a conservative outlook. Remember, in his two consistories of cardinal appointees, these new cardinals are HIS choice. It would be surprising if any of his appointees would turn much to the left.

    As to the involvement of Benedict when he steps down, I don’t see him offering counter-advice to the new pope in the Church’s discipline (as opposed to dogma, wherein there will be unanimity). I think Benedict, like Bush 43, will be silent about the actions of his successor, unlike former President Clinton, who has offered his opinions both for and against Obama, but careful not to alienate his wife’s chances in 2016.

  • GenePH

    Tell your daughter Cathy to start her own da__ church. It could be the Cathillic Church.

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    J4…Just the way the Catholic Church’s tradition and magisterium has maintained its consistency for over 2000 years. If you check several of our past conversations, we’ve travelled this road before. It won’t happen.

    • jeff4

      I will bet you lunch it does Ed

  • Bobdisqus

    That your daughter may fight a war is a good thing in your opinion? I hope mine never do, and find the idea a sign of decline.

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    We have a new Pope! Last night my wife and I were discussing the possible names. I thought Francis would be a great name, and added that a Jesuit would be a real plus. Both came true.The odds makers said Leo would be number one. Beat the odds!

    • jeff4

      when i saw the new pope’s name was FRANCIS i thought WOW THEY DID ELECT A WOMAN!!! WAHOO!!!!

  • GenePH

    FUMO BIANCO!!! HABEMUS PAPAM!!! FRANSICUS PRIMUS+

    Ed, I had an armchair connection to history. My friend’s wife was in St. Peter’s Square for the introduction of Pope Francis. He emailed me the above with a picture she took as it was going on. She and her church group had a pilgrimage to Rome and the shrine of Our Lady of Loretto planned out in advance – before Pope Benedict XVI resigned. It was just a coincidence that they were there for the conclave and the resulting papal election.

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      Gene…How awesome! I think this new pope is just what the Church needs…a man who is humble and on message about caring for the poor, yet vocal and aggressive in denouncing the social evils of the day…taking a name that brings up images of St. Francis of Assisi who left a wealthy lifestyle and that of St. Francis Xavier who brought Christianity to countries in Asia.

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