February 16, 2013


The Pope Joins a Fine but Rarely Seen Tradition : A resignation that echoes across the ages, recalling other pontiffs who acted for the good of the church. (THOMAS F. MADDEN, 2/14/13, WSJ)

Given the list of hundreds of popes stretching across 20 centuries, one of the remarkable details about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation announcement earlier this week was that such papal events are astonishingly rare. And yet there is a simple reason that so few pontiffs have stepped down from the throne of St. Peter. Since the pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth, placed in his position by the Holy Spirit and exempt from all human judgment, to whom would he submit his resignation? [...]

In 1415, Europe had endured nearly four decades of religious turmoil during which two (and at one point, three) rival popes reigned in different cities at the same time. Everyone knew that there could be only one true pope, but there was no good way to decide which of the various popes that was. Some in the Catholic hierarchy suggested that an ecumenical council should decide the issue, but such a council could only be called by a valid pope, which was of course the whole problem.

Papering over the difficulty, a council called itself into being at Constance, in present-day Germany, in 1414. The pope in Rome, Gregory XII, negotiated a plan with the leaders of the council that if they would recognize him and his predecessors at Rome as the true popes, he would call the council, thus giving it the legitimacy it needed. Then he would himself resign. The deal was struck and, after deposing the remaining antipope in Avignon, the council finally ended the Great Schism. Ex-Pope Gregory XII was praised across Europe for his willingness to put the good of the faith before his own interests. He spent the remaining two years of his life as Bishop of Porto.

The resignation of Benedict XVI is, therefore, big news as only the third resignation since it became an option. Yet across so much time, the reasons behind the decision remain remarkably similar. Like Celestine V and Gregory XII, Benedict puts aside his own power, privilege and position for the continued well-being of a centuries-old religion and its followers.

Posted by at February 16, 2013 8:15 AM

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