Unprecedented, yes, but not against established practice

Pope Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the See of Peter has occasioned much commentary about how rare a papal resignation is. Many have said that it has been 600 years or 700 years, depending on how one counts. It is more radical than that. What the Holy Father did has never been done in the history of the Church. Ever.

There have been a handful of papal resignations in history. Two or three are from the first centuries, about which there exists great historical uncertainty. Those early cases related to exile or persecution, namely, the pope was driven out or pressured by the imperial power.

The cases about which we do have historical knowledge come from a turbulent period in papal history. Benedict IX assumed the papacy in 1032, installed by powerful family connections. By all accounts a corrupt and violent man, his tenure became increasingly untenable and he was forced out in 1044, but restored in 1045, provoking a deadlock which he resolved by accepting payment to resign later that same year. He came back in 1047, before finally being deposed by the emperor definitively in 1048. The whole sorry chapter bears no relevance to today.

Gregory XII resigned in 1415. At the time there were three claimants to be the legitimate pope, and a great council of both ecclesiastical and civil powers was required to sort out the mess. The solution was to depose the two rival claimants, and persuade Gregory XII to resign, which he did, clearing the way to elect a legitimate and undisputed successor. Again, a situation which is not a precedent for today.

That leaves Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294. In the summer of 1294, the papacy had been vacant for over two years. The cardinals were deadlocked and could not agree on a candidate. An 80-year-old monk reputed for his ascetical discipline wrote to the conclave, warning them that if they did not discharge their duty and elect a pope, they would face God’s wrath. The exhausted conclave responded by choosing the monk himself, Pietro del Morrone. He initially refused, but eventually gave in (or was coerced?) and was crowned in July 1294. Six decades of monastic life left him ill-prepared to govern the Church, and he was soon overwhelmed and incompetent. Manifestly inadequate to the task, he promulgated a decree that permitted the pope to abdicate, and then did so. His papacy lasted five months.

Therefore, there is no precedent in the entire history of the Church for a pope, elected legitimately and without disputation, and manifestly able to function as pope, to resign. Furthermore, there is no precedent for a pope to resign on grounds of diminished health, given that every pope experiences diminished health some time before he dies.

So why then might Pope Benedict do something never before done, ever?

The Holy Father hinted at an answer in his abdication address, noting that the “rapid changes” of “today’s world” required rather more strength than he currently has. This echoes the teaching of Vatican II, in its decree on bishops, Christus Dominus: “Since the pastoral office of bishops is so important and weighty, diocesan bishops and others regarded in law as their equals, who have become less capable of fulfilling their duties properly because of the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason, are earnestly requested to offer their resignation from office either at their own initiative or upon the invitation of the competent authority.”

The next year, in 1966, Venerable Paul VI decreed that bishops were “earnestly requested of their own free will” to resign at age 75. By 1983, this was no longer an invitation but an obligation in canon law. Likewise, in 1970, Venerable Paul VI decreed that cardinals had to give up all their offices, including the right to vote in the conclave, upon reaching 80 years of age.

The 1983 code, which formalized the retirement age for bishops, also provided for the renunciation of his office by the Bishop of Rome.

So while utterly without precedent, Pope Benedict’s decision can be read as being consistent with what he calls the “hermeneutic of reform” — the correct interpretation of Vatican II. On that reading, the Holy Father’s abdication is not only a remarkable novelty itself, but also the gradual extension of an accepted principle to new territory, exercising as Bishop of Rome a provision that is already required of all other bishops.

It is consistent with Pope Benedict’s approach in liturgical matters, which has been to expand the realm of the possible by the personal exercise of existing options, rather than making new legislation.

Utterly novel? Yes. In continuity with established practice? Also yes

The Pope’s resignation may be unprecedented but it follows rules established over the years.

The Pope’s resignation may be unprecedented but it follows rules established over the years. CNS photo.