Pope Benedict XVI and the History of Papal Resignations—Part I

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Editor’s note: We are grateful to Andrew Jones, PhD and the Verbum Blog for their submission of this fascinating article. Be sure to catch Part 2 at the Verbum Blog, and while you are there catch all of the great Catholic Bible study resources from Logos Bible Software. LMH

Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he intends to resign from the Chair of Saint Peter has rightfully sent shock waves through the Church. It is an epochal development. This is so not just because papal resignations are rare, but because this time things are different. We are potentially witnessing a development as significant as the medieval emergence of the cardinals as the sole papal electors. The way pontificates end has never been problematic for the Catholic Church—they have ended with the natural death of the pope. Rather, it has been the election of popes that has been the focus of institutional development. With Benedict’s announcement, however, he seems to be acknowledging that it is necessary for the Church to develop a new “normal” way in which a pontificate might come to an end.

This is a very big deal. It’s not that there haven’t been papal resignations before. In fact, it has happened somewhere between five and nine times in Church history. In each case, however, the resignations have occurred within the context of a greater crisis in the Church, and have involved issues surrounding papal legitimacy and papal succession. Also, in each case, the pope was under great pressure to resign. Things are different with Benedict.

The best way to see these differences is by a detailed look at past resignations. These can easily be fit into three distinct periods in Church history: the Early Church, the eleventh century, and the late Middle Ages. In each period, the resignations occurred in the context of very different crises, but there are certain threads that tie all of them together. This is the first in a series of posts that will go through these three periods, exploring what was happening in the Church that led to the exceedingly rare papal resignations. By the end, we will hopefully be able to place Benedict XVI’s resignation in enough historical context to begin to understand its significance.

  1. The Crisis of the Early Church—the Possible Resignation of Martin I
Pope Martin I

Pope Martin I

In the first period of resignations, the Church faced the crisis of persecution at the hands of the Roman emperors. We have three popes that are sometimes said to have abdicated between 235 and 366. St. Pontian (230–235) and Liberius (352–366) were both sent into exile by the emperor, and may have abdicated the papal throne in order to allow for a new papal election. The evidence that these events happened, however, is extremely weak, and as good a case can be made that the resignations never happened.

It is sometimes asserted, based on thin evidence, that under torture St. Marcellinus (296–304) offered sacrifice to the Roman idols and resigned from his office before he repented and was martyred. While St. Augustine argued that this was not true of Marcellinus, the truth is that the extant evidence is inadequate to piece together the events.

The one clear but odd case is that of St. Martin I (649–655), the last of the martyr popes. St. Martin refused to accept the Byzantine emperor’s Monothelite heresy, and so was sent into exile as a slave laborer. After several years, the Romans elected Eugenius I pope. Sometime later Martin wrote a letter in which he makes reference to Eugenius approvingly. The details are unclear, but it does not seem to be the case that Martin resigned in any sort of formal manner. Rather, he seems to have retroactively acknowledged Eugenius. There is not enough clear evidence to make strong conclusions about this period. Nevertheless, the central problem in play is popes who were incapable of performing their office because of persecution—a problem that would not be solved until the papacy was no longer subject to the secular power of the emperors.

Continued on the Verbum blog . . .

Andrew Jones is the director of Catholic products at Logos Bible Software. An expert on the history of the papacy, he holds a PhD in medieval history from St. Louis University. Andrew taught history at Lindenwood University and St. Louis University before coming to work for Logos.

Andrew’s research and writing focuses on the development of the papal office and of its theological underpinnings. Andrew is an expert on the construction of the Roman administration, of the canon law, and of the organizational structure of the Church during the crucial centuries of the High Middle Ages. This expertise includes the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the development of the College of Cardinals—all essential topics for an understanding of the development of the papacy. Andrew has done considerable writing on the problem of a vacant Holy See and on the development of the conclave as the mechanism for the election of a new pope. His expertise extends beyond institutional developments, however, and into the theological and philosophical movements that complemented them.

Andrew has published several articles on the papacy, has presented numerous papers at academic conferences, and is in the final stages of revising his book on the relationship between Pope Clement IV and King Louis IX. He is also writing a book on the history of the problem of Church and State during the Middle Ages.

Copyright 2013 Andrew W. Jones, PhD

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