Question: Can the Pope resign? The newspapers keep suggesting that Pope John Paul II is in such poor health that he will need to do so. What would happen if a Pope were unable to rule the Church but refused to resign?
Answer: Over the twenty centuries of the Church's existence a few Popes have resigned. The most recent was Gregory XII (November 30, 1406, to July 4, 1415), who reigned during the Western Schism. He is generally considered to have been the one legitimate Pope among the three who claimed the papacy simultaneously, resigning in order to allow a new election to end the schism.1
St. Celestine V (Pietro del Murrone) reigned from July 5, 1294, to Dec. 13, 1294; a devout hermit who was elected Pope and proved incapable of the duties of high office.
Benedict IX has the unique distinction of being Pope during three distinct periods of time! A young, disorderly, layman, appointed through the influence of his father, he served from October 21, 1032 until being violently deposed in September of 1044. With similar violence he returned to expel his elected successor, Sylvester III from Rome on March 10, 1045, only to resign the papacy in less than two months on May 1. After brief reigns by Gregory VI and Clement II, Benedict returned to the papacy (whether or not he was elected again is disputed) on November 8, 1047, only to be deposed again on orders from Emperor Henry III on July 16, 1048.
St. Pontian, July 21, 230, to Sept. 28, 235 was deported to a forced labor camp on Sardinia, and resigned in order to allow the selection of a successor who was in a better position to govern the Church. He died together, and reconciled with, Hippolytus, who is believed to have been the first antipope (false claimant to the papacy).
It is conjectured, but not certain, that St. Clement, 88-97 A.D. died in exile in the Crimea and resigned in order to allow the election of his successor.
So, in the long history of the papacy we have had only four
or five resignations -- it is obviously possible, but not very common. Yet the
Church must be prepared for the eventuality, particularly in modern times as
medicine discovers new ways to keep men alive longer and longer but not always
with full vitality. The Code of Canon Law provides for it as follows:
1917 Code Canon 221: If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns,
for the validity of this resignation, acceptance by a Cardinal or another is
not necessary. 1983 Code Canon 332§1: The Roman Pontiff acquires full and supreme power in the
Church when, together with episcopal consecration, he has been lawfully
elected and has accepted the election. Accordingly, if he already has the
episcopal character, he receives this power from the moment he accepts
election to the supreme pontificate. If he does not have the episcopal
character, he is immediately to be ordained Bishop.
1983 Code Canon 332§2: Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his
office, it is to be required for validity that the resignation be freely made
and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by
1917 Code Canon 221: If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns, for the validity of this resignation, acceptance by a Cardinal or another is not necessary.
1983 Code Canon 332§1: The Roman Pontiff acquires full and supreme power in the Church when, together with episcopal consecration, he has been lawfully elected and has accepted the election. Accordingly, if he already has the episcopal character, he receives this power from the moment he accepts election to the supreme pontificate. If he does not have the episcopal character, he is immediately to be ordained Bishop.
1983 Code Canon 332§2: Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is to be required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.
The idea of removing a Pope against his will is a much more tricky question. Over the years theologians have advanced many tentative answers, but no official Church teaching has been formulated. There is at least general agreement that a Pope might be removed for heresy -- even among theologians who are adamant that the Pope cannot be removed, this exception is often thrown in. For any other offence or inability, the waters are very muddy indeed.
A major problem is that the Pope has no earthly superior, either to charge him with heresy or to demand his resignation for this or any other reason. Some suggest that this might be done by a General Council or by the College of Cardinals, others say the Holy Roman Emperor (the Emperor had a veto power over papal elections until the reign of Pope St. Pius X), others a successor Pope, and still others say that the heretical Pope removes himself but it is up to a successor Pope to declare that removal took place.
However, we do have a few historical examples of Popes being removed. History is not theology, and cannot speak to the validity of the papal removals or of the elections of the men chosen as replacements. But history does give us the benefit of knowing how the Church acted in specific concrete cases, and how subsequent Popes and generations of Catholics looked back on these actions.
The next few paragraphs are reprinted from our June 1996 column, which may be read in its entirety on the Internet.2 They describe the scandal of having three men claim the papacy after the "captivity" at Avignon. After roughly seventy years away, the papacy returned to Rome in the person of Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378), who would have retreated to Avignon but died in Rome before he was able.
The Election of Pope Gregory's successor signaled new difficulties. Urban VI (1378-1389) was elected by a conclave under the pressure of the Roman mob to appoint an Italian Pope. At first the Cardinals maintained that they had elected the former Archbishop of Bari of their own free will. But when the new Pope turned out to be tyrannical, inflexible, and sometimes violent, they began to reconsider the validity of his election. All but three of the Cardinals conducted a second election in the city of Anagni, declaring Urban deposed, and electing Clement VII (1378-1394). Clement soon returned to Avignon.
Both Urban VI at Rome and Clement VII at Avignon had reasonable claims to be Pope. They excommunicated each other and appointed their supporters as Cardinals. France, Scotland, and Spain supported the claims of Pope Clement, while England, the Empire, and most of Italy supported Pope Urban. This balance of power precluded any military solution to the problem of two Popes.
This "Western Schism" continued, even though there were no doctrinal differences between the two parties, even after the deaths of Urban and Clement. It was hoped, by the clergy on both sides, that the two men claiming to be Pope might resolve the issue by mutually agreeing to resign and allowing the two groups of Cardinals to jointly elect a single Pope. But both sides continued to elect Popes who refused to enter into such a compromise.
Finally, an attempt was made by the Cardinals of both sides to call an ecumenical council to depose both Popes and elect a new one. The Council of Pisa elected Alexander V in 1409, but that only made matters worse, for then there were three Popes! The situation was not resolved until the Council of Constance deposed all three and elected Pope Martin V (1417-1431). They risked having a fourth claimant, but with assistance from the Emperor the Church was able to gain recognition of Martin as the one single Pope. Gregory XII, the Roman Pope, approved the acts of the Council and resigned. Pope John XXIII, the successor of the Pope elected at Pisa, tried to flee but then did as Gregory did. In 1429 the last Avignonese Pope voluntarily resigned any claim he might have had.
Thus, the Papacy at Avignon, called the "Babylonian
Captivity of the Papacy" by the scholar Petrarch, lasted somewhere between
seventy and one hundred twenty five years. "Conciliarism," the
deposition of popes by councils, however, would last quite a few more years. In
1439 the Council of Basel, deposed Pope Eugenius IV and elected the antipope,
Felix V.3 Pope Pius II, earlier an advocate of "conciliarism," later
condemned it when his own removal began to be discussed; the threat of Moslem
invasion may well have helped him to consolidate his power.4 As recently as 1969,
the possibility of deposing a reigning Pope was discussed in connection with
liberal dissatisfaction over Pope Paul VI's continuing the Church's prohibition
of artificial birth control.5
Benedict IX, whom we have already encountered, was expelled the first time by the Roman mob for malfeasance -- he led such an immoral life and did such a bad job that people hated him enough to riot. His successor Sylvester III (January 20, 1045, to March 10, 1045) is acknowledged on some lists of the Popes but not others; virtually everyone admits his tenure questionable. Benedict's resignation after his second time in office made his successors more clearly legitimate. When Benedict was removed by the Emperor after his third reign, he was replaced by Damasus II, an imperial nominee who was ratified by a Roman election. Damasus is generally acknowledged as a legitimate Pope even though Benedict IX was still alive (for six or seven years after Damasus' death). This might suggest that the Emperor could remove a Pope from office (the emperors held veto rights over a papal election until the reign of Pope Saint Pius X) -- but it is unclear if Benedict was actually elected again after his resignation -- and some say that his resignation made him incapable of future election. The situation is further obscured by the well established fact that Benedict's resignation was paid for by his successor, Gregory VI -- which enables some to claim that the abdication was invalid and Benedict remained the true Pope.
Similar confusion surrounds the deposition of John XII (December 16, 955, to May 14, 964 (the date of his death)) by the Emperor Otto I and a synod of the Roman clergy in 963. John, elected at eighteen, the illegitimate son of the powerful Alberic II, prince of Rome, was a truly immoral man and politically treacherous. His successor Leo VIII was elected by acclamation, raised through all of the Orders, and consecrated bishop and Pope, all within two days. His consecration by the bishops of Ostia, Porto, and Albano added to his seeming legitimacy. But Leo's influence waned abruptly with a violent revolution in Rome (instigated by John XII). Leo fled Rome. John reassumed the Papacy, excommunicated Leo, but died within months in May of 964. The Roman people elected Benedict V. But Emperor Otto and the questionable Pope Leo returned and forcibly deposed Benedict who was exiled to Hamburg, there to serve as deacon. Paradoxically, while most lists show Benedict V as a true Pope, they also include John XIII, who was elected five months after Leo's death, but while Benedict was still alive!
St. Martin I, (July, 649 - September 16, 655, had been in exile since June 17, 653 when in 654 the Roman clergy elected St. Eugene I (August. 10, 654 - June 2, 657), apparently against Martin's will. Martin died of cold and starvation. St. Martin I was effectively deposed by the election of St. Eugene I in 654. Even though Martin lived a full year longer, Eugene is well accepted as a legitimate Pope, and on Martin's death nothing was done to repair any possible irregularities (i.e. no re-election). Some say that Eugene's election was regularized by Martin's acquiescence to the situation, but this is unproven -- there certainly wasn't much he could do about it while shivering in exile. This is probably the best historical example of the Church replacing a Pope simply because he was unable to fulfill his duties.
A more complicated, yet instructive for our purposes, series of events took place even earlier, beginning with the attempt of Pope Felix IV to appoint his own successor in the person of Boniface II (September 22, 530 - October 17, 532). Most Church and civic officials felt the attempt improper, and the majority of the Roman people and clergy elected the deacon Dioscorus (September 22 - October 14, 530) and consecrated him Pope on the same day that the minority consecrated Boniface. The schism was very brief, in that Dioscorus died after a mere three weeks, leaving the minority candidate to rule as Pope Boniface II, without benefit of a second election. In turn, Boniface attempted to appoint as his successor the deacon Virgilius, but was forced to withdraw the appointment. Boniface's elected successors were John II (January 2, 533, to May 8, 535), the first Pope to change his name on election (John's given name was Mercury!); St. Agapitus I (May 13, 535, to Apr. 22, 536); and St. Silverius (June 1 or 8, 536, to Nov. 11, 537 (d. Dec. 2, 537)). Pope Silverius was violently deposed and exiled by the Byzantine Emperor's General Belisarius in March of 537. Even though he did not abdicate (and that under duress), until November 11, his successor, Vigilius (the protege of Boniface II) was elected on March 29, 537, (and ruled until June 7, 555). Not surprisingly, many did not accept Virgilius as Pope until Silverius' forced abdication or his death a few days later, there was then no attempt at a re-election, and no suggestion that complicity in Silverius' martyrdom might have made Virgilius ineligible to hold the papacy.
In any event, let us not forget to pray the the spiritual and physical wellbeing of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul.