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Deja Vu

February 11, 2013

Peace! I’m Out

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2013: Catholics around the world were shocked by the sudden announcement that Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in 1927) would step down from the papacy. Citing advanced age and declining health—some noticed the Pope dozing off during Christmas Mass—Benedict will be the first pope to resign in six centuries. The New York Times reports on the declaration, which came as a surprise to even cardinals in Benedict’s inner circle:

“The pope took us by surprise,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, expounding on one of the most dramatic moments in centuries of Vatican history. He appeared at a hastily-called news conference on Monday, where he stood by himself at the lectern, with an unopened bottle of mineral water and a dog-eared copy of a Canon Law guide before him.

Father Lombardi said that the pope would continue to carry out his duties until Feb. 28 at 8 p.m., and that a successor would likely be elected by Easter, which falls on March 31. But he said the timing for an election of a new pope is “not an announcement, it’s a hypothesis.”

Popes in the Middle Ages were far more fond of abdication, especially amidst scandal or political intrigue—here, we present the stories of three such pontiffs:

1045: The godfather of Benedict IX persuaded the controversial pope to resign his role as leader of the Catholic Church in exchange for an undisclosed sum—the only time in recorded history in which money changed hands over the papacy. Benedict, born Theophylactus of Tusculum, had already abdicated and returned to the papacy twice, once in 1036 and again in 1044. He had ascended to the highest ranks of the Church while still a teenager, and Benedict IX’s historical reputation is one filled with scandal and licentiousness. Pope Victor III, in a volume of his Dialogues, referred to Benedict’s “rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”

1294: Celestine V’s abdication decree expressed “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” Renouncing all luxury, Celestine intended to live out his days in a quiet mountain monastery. Alas, his successor, Boniface VIII, had Celestine arrested on an unknown charge, and the former pope died in custody shortly thereafter. Boniface VIII was a hated enemy of Dante Alighieri, and many believe the lines “I saw and recognized the shade of him, Who by his cowardice made the great refusal,” from Inferno III, 59-60, refer to Celestine.

1415: Gregory XII , the most recent pope to resign before Benedict XVI, did so amidst dizzying political maneuvering meant to end the Western Schism, a decades-long battle between Roman clergy and a rebel clergy based in Avignon. After a series of stalled negotiations in which Gregory XII and his rival, Antipope Benedict XIII, each feared being abducted by supporters of the other, a 1409 council of cardinals attempted to depose both popes as “schismatical, heretical, perjured, and scandalous.” Gregory XII resisted and compromise was finally reached by the 1415 Council of Constance, during which Gregory was allowed to create a group of new cardinals and then resign. During a seventeenth century restoration of the cathedral in which Gregory’s tomb lay, the pope’s remains, which some sources claim were “perfectly preserved,” were reclothed in traditional papal vestments.

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  • Re Celestine V: It is a pity we don't have the actual text of the decree; the words that were reported are possibly reflective of bias on the part of the writer. And let's not forget he was canonized in 1313 -- as St Peter of the Morrone, the name he was known by before he became pope. The name is important, as it indicates that it was deemed valid for him to have resigned the papacy.
    Re Dante: It is true that many say this verse refers to Celestine, but in reality there is no way of knowing who the poet may have had in mind. And given that the whole point of this episode in the Inferno is to show these people, who in life chose neither good nor bad, do not deserve to be remembered at all, it is fitting that we not know with certainty who this could be.

    Posted by George Ferzoco on Mon 11 Feb 2013

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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