Pope Benedict'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. Moreover, now that the pope has resigned, his action will change the papal office forever.
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.
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An illustration shows Pope Celestine V resigning from the papacy in 1294.
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 sometime 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.
In 1966, Pope 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, Pope Paul 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.
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.
Utterly novel? Yes. In continuity with established practice? Also yes.
However, the proper Catholic intuition about an utter novelty is that it may well be a grave mistake. Not certainly a grave mistake, but plausibly so.
It is also necessary to consider the adverse consequences of the abdication. To do so is not to lack any loyalty to the Holy Father, who in other contexts has invited disagreement with his analysis, as the fruit of engagement borne of goodwill.
To look at the other side is also not to question Benedict's holiness, which is quite manifest. St. Pius V was a holy man whose excommunication of Elizabeth I is widely considered a mistake. St. Robert Bellarmine presided over the first Galileo trial. Even saints can disagree with each other, as began with Peter and Paul in the early Church.
More to the point, just last December, Pope Benedict declared that Pope Paul VI lived a life of heroic holiness and declared him "Venerable," meaning worthy of being declared a saint.
That Pope Paul was holy does not mean his decisions were good ones. Cardinal Ratzinger himself said so, quite dramatically, while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy," Ratzinger wrote in 1997 about Paul VI's reform.
While the new missal brought "real improvement and enrichment" in many respects, he wrote, setting it as "a new construction over against what had grown historically" made the liturgy appear to be the product of scholarly work and juridical authority. "This has caused us enormous harm."
Ratzinger did not dispute that Pope Paul had the canonical right to do as he did, just that it was a calamitous mistake, in part because "nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy."
Benedict's resignation is precisely that – nothing of the sort has ever happened in history. It may be, as I suggested above, that it constitutes a gradual extension of an accepted practice that may indeed serve the Church well.
It is a near-universal judgment that the mandatory retirement age for bishops has served the Church well, especially as it is now routine for men to live into their 80s and 90s.
It is also possible, that 25 years hence – as Ratzinger wrote about Paul VI's reforms – the abdication will be judged to have been an enormous mistake.
It is too early to make a judgment either way, but even now it is possible to foresee how this will change the papacy.
While it gives a future pope the practical liberty to resign as Benedict has done, it also will make it much more difficult for him to remain in office.
I have little doubt that if Pope Paul had resigned in the 1970s, Blessed John Paul II would have found it impossible to remain until his death – the pressure for resignation would have been immense. The Church would have been deprived of his great witness and the grace of his death.
Or consider the international assault on Pope Benedict launched in 2010 over sexual abuse cases. Had the possibility of a papal resignation been in the air, it would have been a much longer and nastier fight.
A freely chosen papal abdication, unprecedented as it is, changes the papal office forever; whether for better or worse remains to be seen.
(This column is adapted from a forthcoming essay in Convivium magazine, www.cardus.ca/convivium, of which Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief.)
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org