The Pope announced that he intended to resign today on grounds of ill health and age – leaving office before the end of the month. In recent centuries, the view has been that popes continue until they croak but Pope Benedict’s decision to leave before dying is not without precedent. If you head back into the Middle Ages – popes stepped down for any number of reasons.
Pope Benedict IX (1032-1948) for example found the burden of the papacy too much for his eleven year old shoulders – yes, he was eleven when his family arranged for him to become pope! And why not – two of his uncles had been pope before him. He got fed up with his duties and sold the papacy to his godfather though changed his mind later on and seized it back.
Pope Celestine V (six months in 1294) decided the job really wasn’t for him and passed a law permitting a pope to resign, which he duly did. Celestine rather fancied the thought of retiring to peaceful contemplation. But his rather overbearing successor, Boniface VIII, decided to imprison him instead and possibly had him murdered. His confinement certainly didn’t last very long and was followed very shortly after by his funeral.
Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415) was caught up in the Western Schism where, for several decades, there were two and sometimes more popes. One sat in Rome and the other in the French city of Avignon. To try and end this crazy situation that divided Europe, a decision was made that if one pope stepped down, the other one would. Of course, there then followed a game of brinkmanship to see who would blink first but in the end, Gregory did the noble thing. He was allowed to retire to Ancona where history records nothing terrible happening to him.
Recent times have not been without papal controversy with claims that Pope John Paul I was murdered – I have no view on this – and reports that Pius XII wrote a decree insisting that if the Nazis kidnapped him, he should be deemed to be no longer pope. I’ve no doubt in the next few days and weeks we will hear many salacious theories as to the stepping down of Benedict. Just be aware that the Vatican has been here before!