One year ago, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world with his announcement that he would be resigning the papacy.
Resignations are rare, as most news media reported at the time, but they are not as uncommon as one might think. About seven others, besides Benedict XVI, resigned their positions as Christ’s vicar on earth. That’s about 1 in every 30 of the 264 men who have been pope. Some resigned after a personal scandal. Others stepped aside to avoid—or heal—a schism. Yet others vacated the office for a multitude of other reasons, still unknown to us. Besides Benedict XVI, here are seven other popes who resigned or are strongly suspected of having done so:
St. Pontian, 230-235: The resignation of the first pope reflects the circumstances of the early Church. In 235, new Roman Emperor Maximin issued an anti-Christian edict. Then-Pope Pontian was sentenced to work in the mines of Sardinia. Pontian promptly resigned his office. The resignation also may have been intended to heal the schism with antipope Hippolytus, according to Church historian Warren Carroll, in his history of Christendom series. Hippolytus has also been condemned to the Sardinian mines, where Pontian ended up reconciling him to the Church. Both are acclaimed today as saints.
St. Martin 1, 649-655: In the mid-seventh century, the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople were at odds over the Monothelitism—the heresy that Christ had just one will, a throwback to the older Monophysite heresy that Christ had one nature. After a failed assassination attempt, Byzantine forces arrested Pope St. Martin I and imprisoned him on Naxos, an island in the Aegean Sea between Greece and modern-day Turkey. Without any word on his fate, the clergy of Rome elected a new pope, Eugenius I in 654. But Martin I lived on. It wasn’t until next year that he heard of the election, still in exile on Naxos. Then Martin I presumably composed a letter entrusting Rome’s “present pastor” to God’s care. Such language indicates that Martin I “recognized him as the new Pope, which may therefore be considered an act of resignation,” Carroll writes.
Benedict V, 964: A few centuries later, the greater threat to the stability of the papacy lay in its European backyard, not across the Aegean Sea. In 964, after the current pope refused to recognize his authority, Holy Roman Emperor Otto convened a synod and elected an antipope named Leo. When the pope died, Leo was passed over and Benedict V was elected as the new pontiff. An enraged Otto invaded Rome and insisted on his choice for pope. He even yanked the pallium off Benedict’s shoulders and snapped his shepherd’s crook, Carroll writes. “There is every reason to believe that Benedict, a genuinely humble and holy man, then and there resigned as Pope to avoid further humiliation of the Papal office,” Carroll concludes.
Benedict IX, 1033-1044: From the beginning, the papacy of Benedict IX was morally compromised—the pontiff had obtained his office through simony, the crime of purchasing ecclesiastical offices, named after Simon Magus in the Book of Acts. Matters only went downhill from there: the people of Rome apparently became so scandalized by the morally dissolute lifestyle of Benedict IX that they chased him out of the city in 1044. But Benedict IX wasn’t all that attached to the office anyway. He sold the office he had bought to his godfather so he could get married.
Gregory VI, 1044-1046: John Gratian, the man who bought the papacy from Benedict IX, was making a well-intentioned effort to lift the papacy out of the moral sewer in which it had been languishing. But he was never able to recover from the scandal caused by the less-than-reputable manner in which he had obtained the office. At a synod in the small Italian town of Sutri north of Rome, Gregory VI yielded to pressure to resign (despite such pressure, the pope resigned and was not deposed as some historians mistakenly claim, according to Carroll).
St. Celestine V, 1294: On July 5, 1294, Pietro di Murrone was elected Pope Celestine V, breaking a two-year deadlock in the conclave. But within the year, the conclave was back at it again, after Celestine V resigned. Perhaps his most significant act while pope was issuing a papal bull confirming that a pope can, in fact, resign his position. Historians seem convinced that among his motives was Celestine’s realization that he was a poor administrator. There was also a moral and spiritual dimension to the decision as well: “Affairs of State took up time that ought to be devoted to exercises of piety. He feared that his soul was in danger. The thought of abdication seems to have occurred simultaneously to the pope and to his discontented cardinals, whom he rarely consulted,” states the Catholic Encyclopedia. The verdict of his contemporaries was not kind: his successor imprisoned Celestine and Dante, in his Inferno, placed Celestine V in the vestibule to hell for what the Italian poet described as “the great refusal.” But some in his time and in later generations did recognize his holiness—if not his administrative prowess—and Celestine V was canonized a saint in 1313. Celestine’s desire for the monastic lifestyle also inspired a new religious movement, the Celestini, who were approved as a branch of the Benedictines, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Gregory XII, 1406-1415: This resignation—the last before Benedict XVI—paved the way for an end to a major schism in the Church. The Great Western Schism began in 1378 after newly elected Pope Urban VI’s eccentric behavior antagonized the cardinals who elected him. Concerned he might be mentally incapacitated they elected a new pope, Clement VII. But Urban VI did not resign. Instead he appointed new cardinals loyal to him—schism had begun, and it was to last for 40 years, with opposing lines of popes at Rome and Avignon. (The French interest in maintaining control over the papacy is viewed as another factor in the schism.) One attempt to resolve the situation only worsened it when a council elected a new pontiff to replace the Roman and Avignon papal lines. Once the other two refused to resign, the election had the ultimate effect of only increasing the number of people claiming to be pope. A second council, the Council of Constance, seemed to have more luck and Gregory XII, often regarded as the legitimate pope during the schism, agreed to resign to pave the way for a successor. With that the Great Western Schism came to an end. (Sources included the Catholic Encyclopedia, EWTN, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present, by John O’Malley, S.J.)