It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign the papacy for health reasons. The last time a pope resigned voluntarily was 1294. The great poet Dante Alighieri was so angry about it that he put the abdicating pope, Celestine V, into the antechamber of his Inferno. In the more than seven centuries since, no pope has taken the name Celestine.
Now that Pope Benedict has resigned, the popes who follow him will have to take the precedent he set seriously, says Kenneth Pennington, a professor of ecclesiastical and legal history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “Future popes who find themselves no longer able to exercise their office to their full capacity are going to look at this resignation very carefully,” Pennington says.
Gregory XII stepped down in 1415, but his resignation was coerced in order to solve a schism in the church, Pennington says. Benedict made clear that his resignation was of his own free will. Pennington says he listened to the pope’s resignation in Latin, and the pontiff used the phrase plena libertas—complete freedom.
Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter explains that recent popes have felt that resignation was unacceptable, with Pope Paul VI saying paternity cannot be resigned. Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, died in office after years of poor health that limited his ability to perform.
Benedict, although theologically conservative, is breaking from tradition in an important way. University of Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby writes in an e-mail: “Whether it is modern or just plain good common sense, the pope’s decision to resign does reflect the increasing pressures of overseeing a global church in a media-saturated environment where everyone is an instant expert and ‘news’ travels faster than any bureaucracy can hope to manage.”
Then again, Benedict didn’t announce his resignation via his Twitter account, where his handle is @Pontifex.
Oh, about that Dante allusion: Dante doesn’t use Celestine’s name in the Inferno, the first book of his Divine Comedy. But most scholars believe that’s whom he was speaking of when he wrote about a coward who made “the great refusal.” Dante was angry because Celestine’s resignation paved the way for Boniface VIII, whom Dante detested.