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(Getty/AFP/Alberto Pizzoli)

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, announced for February 28, is an action virtually without precedent. No pope has resigned in modern times. No pope has ever resigned for reasons of failing health. And hardly any pope—only one, really—has ever resigned the papacy voluntarily. Early examples are shrouded in obscurity, but were all obviously constrained in one way or another. Pontian (230-235) is said to have resigned after being exiled: he evidently recognized that he could not function as bishop of Rome while performing slave labor in the mines of Sardinia. Marcellinus (296-304) had the misfortune to be bishop of Rome during the great persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian. He reportedly bent to imperial pressure and offered sacrifice to the pagan gods; and as a consequence, he was either deposed or forced to abdicate.

Even under Christian emperors, popes could run afoul of the political authorities and be forced from office. Benedict V (964) lasted barely a month in office before being deposed by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Henry III deposed Benedict IX and two rival popes in 1046, ending a brief but messy schism and initiating a sweeping reform of the church. As part of that reform, in 1059 Pope Nicholas II decreed that popes would henceforth be elected by the chief clergy of Rome—the College of Cardinals—which has been the standard procedure for papal elections ever since. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) dealt with the Great Western Schism, which since 1378 had divided the Catholic Church between two (and after 1409, three) competing popes. Invoking the conciliar theory—the idea that supreme authority in the earthly Church lies not in the papacy, but in the assembled body of the faithful as represented by an ecumenical council—the council was able to pressure all three papal claimants to resign, and then to restore unity with the election of Pope Martin V in 1417. None of these popes left office willingly.

The one free and unforced resignation in the long history of the papacy was that of Celestine V, who never wanted to be pope in the first place. For two years after the death of Nicholas IV, the College of Cardinals was evenly split and could not decide on a new pope. The deadlock was broken when the cardinals impulsively decided to elect someone who did not fit the standard mold. Instead of a well-born, well-educated prelate with long experience of church governance, they settled on Peter of Morrone: an aged hermit of peasant stock who lived a withdrawn life of prayer in the Abruzzi mountains, where he had acquired a reputation for holiness. Elected on July 5, 1294, he was crowned pope in Aquila on August 29, taking the name Celestine V. Rather than proceed to Rome, he took up residence in Naples. Having no experience of or interest in administrative matters, he let himself be guided by ill-suited advisors and took actions with little thought of their consequences. It was (for instance) his nomination of a dozen French and southern Italian cardinals barely three weeks into his pontificate that ultimately led to the removal of the papacy to France for seventy years and the subsequent schism. Celestine grew increasingly irritated with the daily business of heading the church—hearing supplicants, deciding cases, appointing people to office, setting policy, managing the finances of a vast international enterprise that reached into every village in Europe. And so, on December 13, 1294, after just five months and nine days in office, he quit. 

Many welcomed his decision to step down. Celestine was certainly not the only one to feel that he was not up to the job. When the cardinals assembled to elect his successor, it took them just one day to settle on Cardinal Benedetto Gaetani, who took the name Boniface VIII. Boniface was Celestine’s opposite in every way: a lawyer’s lawyer, an able administrator, an assertive diplomat, and an aggressive proponent of papal power. No one ever thought of Boniface as a saint. But a saint, as the cardinals had learned to their regret, could make a very bad pope.

Not everyone within the Catholic Church felt that Celestine had the right or power to renounce the papacy: God, acting through the College of Cardinals, had chosen him, and he could not refuse what God had ordained for him. As a result, groups such as the Spiritual Franciscans considered Celestine’s successor Boniface VIII and the popes who followed him to be illegitimate holders of that office. In his Inferno, Dante scornfully dismissed Celestine as the pope who had made “il gran rifiuto,” the great refusal, and imagined him condemned to drift forever outside the gates of hell, unworthy even to enter the realm of the damned. Boniface, on the other hand, he consigned to the eighth circle of hell, among those guilty of simony. The king of France publicly charged Boniface with a host of crimes, from heresy to sodomy, and sent a troop of soldiers to seize the pope at his summer palace and demand his resignation. Boniface refused, of course, so the soldiers held the aged pope captive for a few days and beat him severely. A month later, he died. Then, after the brief pontificate of Benedict XI, the French cardinals who dominated the College—a legacy of Celestine’s ill-considered actions—elected a Frenchman as pope, beginning the 70 years of the Avignon papacy and the ensuing four decades of schism.

Pope Benedict XVI may have pondered Celestine’s resignation back in April 2009, when he visited L’Aquila in the wake of the terrible earthquake and prayed before Celestine’s remains. Benedict, however, is no Celestine. Celestine was an unlettered hermit of peasant background, the ultimate outsider; Benedict was a respected theologian, a cardinal with long experience in the papal bureaucracy, the ultimate insider. Celestine was elected by a group of just eleven cardinals, desperate to select a pope after 27 months of impasse; Benedict was elected by the largest conclave in the history of the Church, after only 24 hours of deliberation. Celestine was a radical choice; Benedict, a conservative one. Celestine was an incompetent administrator who let himself be led by those around him; Benedict ably managed the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy and set the course that he thought right. Celestine’s resignation in 1294 provoked a grave crisis and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the papal succession. No such schism, no crisis of legitimacy, threatens today. We do not hear powerful elements within the Catholic Church saying that Benedict cannot resign his office or that whoever is elected in his stead will have no right to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Nor are leading intellectuals crying out, in the poetic and prophetic voice of a modern Dante, that the pope cannot renounce the office entrusted to him by God.

The ready acceptance of Benedict’s resignation certainly owes a great deal to the example of his predecessor. Though he chose instead to remain in office, accepting his obvious pain and suffering as a cross he had been given to bear, the idea that John Paul II might resign because of failing health was much discussed in the last years of his pontificate, preparing the way for such a possibility. But it also reflects the very different situation of the Church and the papacy in today’s world. In Celestine’s day, the ecclesiastical prohibition on usury shaped state finance; the thinking of scholastic theologians defined notions of the just wage and the just price; church courts decided whether a marriage, and the offspring of that marriage, was legitimate. Those days are gone. Financial markets do not care what theologians think, and the pope does not decide whether the king of England can divorce his wife. No one would deny that the pope continues to wield enormous influence: one recalls, for instance, how important John Paul II was in shaping the transformation of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. But that was due to his moral prestige as leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination, not his power as a head of state and or his sacred authority as vicar of Christ. It may well be that Benedict XVI’s most enduring legacy will be his resignation. He has shown that if an 85-year-old man decides that the weight of the papal tiara is too great for his neck to bear, the Church and the world will accept his decision without complaint or objection.

Daniel Bornstein is Professor of History and Religious Studies and the Stella Koetter Darrow Professor of Catholic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the vice-president of the American Catholic Historical Association, and will assume the presidency in 2014. He is the author of The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy and the editor of Medieval Christianity, volume 4 of A People’s History of Christianity.