Pope Benedict XVI is the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to resolve a dispute over who should lead the Catholic Church.
The resignation of a modern pope is “new territory,” said Norman Housley, professor of history at the University of Leicester in central England. “It’s astonishing. It is groundbreaking,” he said.
Gregory XII was born Angelo Corrario in Venice in about 1327 to a noble family, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. His resignation led to the end of the Western Schism, which arose after two popes were elected in 1378, with one sitting in Avignon, France, and the other in Rome.
Gregory was elected the pope of Rome in 1406 with the understanding that he would quickly resign if the pope of Avignon, Benedict XIII, would do the same. After a decade of negotiation and maneuvering, in which a third pope was elected, Gregory finally stepped down and became a bishop. When Benedict refused to resign, he was excommunicated, and Martin V was elected in 1417 as the sole pope.
“At the end of the schism, they cleared the decks by getting rid of all three popes and having a fresh election of Martin V,” Housley said.
The Avignon Papacy came about in 1309 after Clement V, a Frenchman, was elected pope and refused to move to Rome. Under Clement and his successors, the papacy had a reputation for lavish spending, nepotism and corruption.
The schism was a low point for the papacy, which was facing questions about its relevance from monastic orders, said Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford.
“The whole purpose of the papacy is that it is a symbol of unity and when it ceases to be that, it is in trouble,” MacCulloch said in a telephone interview today. “The papacy could easily have gone. It could easily have turned over to being run by councils of bishops.”
The great powers of the era were the Holy Roman Empire and France, which was then waging the Hundred Years War with England, MacCulloch said. The Battle of Agincourt, in which England’s Henry V triumphed over France, was fought the same year as Gregory XII’s resignation.
“The popes were fairly big players in international politics, mostly because they were drawn into it, or to preserve the independence of their own mini-state in central Italy,” said David d’Avray, a historian at University College London.
Popes could be called upon by kings to arbitrate their disputes and running the church required the skills of a modern U.S. president, d’Avray said. Popes without those abilities didn’t succeed, he said.
“It’s running a world government, just that their government deals with sacraments and churches,” he said.
The papacy also had the scandals and corruption of any political entity, he said. Many popes were connected to powerful families that flourished during their papacies.
“They were Italians of their times, which meant family was very important, and they did their best to help their family clan,” d’Avray said. “If someone in your family become pope, your family would do well because of it.”
Because Gregory XII’s resignation was part of a brokered settlement, a more appropriate comparison to Benedict’s situation might be Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294, Housely said. Celestine was a hermit when he was elected pope and he quickly quit to return to solitude after “he found the office too onerous,” he said.
Since Gregory, there hasn’t been a doctrinal reason for a pope to step down, and until Benedict, illness hasn’t prevented a pope from serving out his duties, Housley said.
“They carry on,” he said.
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