Viewpoint: The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

Marios Costambeys is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History in the University of Liverpool’s Department of History

“The resignation of Benedict XVI offers an abrupt demonstration that history doesn’t follow straight lines; that a long-forgotten past can suddenly echo loudly in the present.

“Media commentary has identified the last pope to resign as Gregory XII in 1415.  Gregory’s departure, however, was really an abdication forced on him by the Council of Constance, seeking to heal the Great Schism between 1378 and 1415.

Celestine V in 1294

“For a true ‘resignation’ we have to go back even further, to Celestine V in 1294.  Celestine had been elected just six months earlier after two years of deadlock.  The College of Cardinals seems to have hoped that this unworldly octogenarian – Celestine was 85 and had been a Benedictine monk and hermit – would bring spiritual renewal to a church that had become fully embroiled in the politics of the day.

“He was skilled in prayer and contemplation, but lacked the instruments to disentangle the church from worldliness, and was soon out of his depth. 

“This poignant story may have been in the mind of Benedict XVI for quite some time”
Seeking advice especially from the trained canon lawyer Cardinal Caetani, Celestine first decreed that a pope could resign the papacy, and then did so.

“The cardinals elected as his successor none other than Cardinal Caetani, who took the name of Boniface VIII.  Fearing, he said, that opponents would seize upon Celestine to create a schism, Boniface kept the old man imprisoned in a cramped cell until his death the following year.  He then had him canonized.

Attachment to St Benedict

“This poignant story may have been in the mind of Benedict XVI for quite some time.  His choice of name itself signals an attachment to the original St Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, and to his ideals of contemplation and self-denial that Celestine V’s life had exemplified.

“In a relatively brief pontificate Benedict XVI twice found time to visit Celestine’s tomb in L’Aquila; and in 2010 pointedly celebrated the 800th anniversary of his birth.  Now this man, who as Cardinal Ratzinger had navigated the politics of the worldwide church with all the skill of a Boniface VIII, must hope for a more comfortable retirement than was granted to Celestine V.”

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